The residents of a small city in Washington state are trying to turn a huge, Wal-Mart lemon into some lemon-aid for the community. On December 30, 2006, Sprawl-Buster’s Newsflash reported that citizens in Chelan, Washington, organized as the group Defenders of Small Town Chelan, had scored a last-minute legal victory in court. Judge Leslie Allan of the Superior Court in Wenatchee, Washington ruled that the building and fill and grade permits issued by the City of Chelan to Wal-Mart for its 162,000 square foot supercenter were invalid. In this case, the court found “that the city adopted a 50,000 s.f. limit on commercial buildings when it approved the planned development district and the development agreement.” The court also ruled that the city’s approval of a Wal-Mart building permit and grading and excavation permit was improper and unlawful. The court said that the city did legally enter into a site agreement in October of 2005, and that citizens did not challenge that agreement. But this 2005 agreement “does not include a depiction or description of the size of the proposed Wal-Mart building.” Although the 2005 agreement did alter the lot sizes, it “did not mention or incorporate the 162,000 s.f. building size,” so the court concluded that the agreement with the city “did not change the previously adopted 50,000 s.f. commercial building limit.” The judge said that the “court is left with the definite and firm conviction that the city erred in granting the two permits at issue… the city adopted a 50,000 s.f. limit on commercial buildings… that limit was not changed by any subsequent action by the city.” However, in a clear “above the law” response, the Wal-Mart supercenter went on to open with the blessing of city government, as if no legal action had taken place. This, in turn, forced local residents to go back to the courts for relief. Yesterday, Defenders of Small Town Chelan sent the following update to Sprawl-Busters: “In an effort to affirm the public’s right to challenge its government’s actions, and to insist upon fair and equal enforcement of laws, the Defenders of Small Town Chelan today asked Judge Lesley Allan to order the City of Chelan to stop the unlawful occupancy of the new Wal-Mart store. The City issued an occupancy permit on January 16, 2007, in defiance of a December 29, 2006 ruling by Judge Allan that the 162,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store violates a 50,000-square-foot limit in the underlying zoning. Today, although a month has passed since the judge’s thoughtful and reasoned decision, the City has yet to take any enforcement action despite a clear duty to do so. Wal-Mart has initiated a process to amend the zoning code to make its store legal. Defenders of Small Town Chelan welcomes a thorough examination of that proposal through an open public process. In the meantime, Defenders of Small Town Chelan strongly believes that the city code must be enforced, and that Wal-Mart must not be rewarded for building, stocking, staffing and opening its store in violation of the zoning, even as the successful legal challenge was pending. As other businesses in the Chelan Valley well know, a store without a legal building permit cannot legally remain open. Last Thursday at the Chelan City Council Meeting, Defenders of Small Town Chelan asked council to direct the mayor or his authorized representative to revoke the occupancy permit issued to Wal-Mart. Neither council nor the mayor took action at this meeting. The proposed Writ of Mandamus was drafted following this public request for action. The document can be accessed at www.dontboxchelan.com. The city’s issuance of permits and then Wal-Mart’s building of the 162,000 foot store without waiting for the legal process have complicated matters and raised emotions on all sides of the issue. Whether Wal-Mart ultimately stays or closes in Chelan will have a major impact on the local economy of the Chelan Valley. Such impacts are already being felt. One local store owner and member of the Defenders of Small town Chelan has experienced a 30% decrease in sales since the Wal-Mart opened its doors. With such high possibilities of business damage or even failure, careful attention to the law is essential. Defenders of Small Town Chelan again expresses regret that the city and Wal-Mart did not show patience for the legal process before rushing to build, staff, stock, and open the store. Recognizing the many opinions and the high emotion that surround Wal-Mart’s future in Chelan, Defenders of Small Town Chelan is submitting a settlement proposal that could allow Wal-Mart to remain open during a zoning amendment process. This settlement could allow all parties to contribute toward more thoughtful future development for the Chelan Valley. The proposal for settlement can be accessed at www.dontboxchelan.com.”
In their proposed settlement, the citizens agree to drop their public opposition to the Wal-Mart, in return the city of Chelan would set up a Planned Development Authority (PDA) for the Chelan Valley region, and ask the County of Chelan to join the new group. The city would also agree to set aside 10% of Wal-Mart sales tax receipts for the costs of operating the Planned Development Authority. Wal-Mart would agree to contribute $5 million (the low-end cost of tearing down their store) to the Planned Development Authority, and towards the cost of a new community center/aquatic center. In addition, Wal-Mart would be asked to pay up to $50,000 in legal fees to the Defenders group, and up to $50,000 in legal fees to the city. The citizens say that the PDA will help the community develop “a vibrant year-round economy with a focus on attracting high-wage jobs, and enhancing pedestrian-scale commercial centers.” The PDA would also help to develop other services, such as a community center, or swimming pool, and “strategies to promote and provide affordable housing.” As a first project for the PDA, the group suggests creation of a Lake Chelan Recreation Development Foundation to create a community center for “sports, swimming and community activities.” Such “off-site” contributions by a developer are not unusual, and companies like Wal-Mart often offer to make such contributions as part of a developer’s agreement with the city.