After months of discussion, the City Council in Frankenmuth, Michigan, a beautiful small community known as the “Little Bavaria” of Michigan, voted yesterday to cap the size of retail stores at 65,000 square feet. The Saginaw News, however, suggested that the action could lead to a lawsuit by Wal-Mart, which wants to build a store on the outskirts of this quaint city. “I don’t feel this ordinance is discriminatory,” Mayor Gary C. Rupprecht said. “But this isn’t over. There’s always the option of litigation.” The best that Wal-Mart’s lawyer could come up with to oppose the cap was “exclusionary spot zoning” that lacks a “legitimate public purpose.” “There are problems with this particular proposal, constitutionally speaking,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer warned. “I would urge you to consult your attorney again.” But the fact is, Wal-Mart has never overturned a simple size cap proposal in court. Size limits are a fundamental control of zoning, similar to height restrictions, and maintaining scale and character of a community by regulating size is a legitimate public purpose. Wal-Mart wants to build a 143,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, but more than 3,000 people concerned about increased crime, traffic and drain on local businesses have signed petitions against the world’s largest retailer. A joint study by the Frankenmuth Economic Development Corp. and Downtown Development Authority released last week estimates that a Wal-Mart supercenter would sap $9 million annually from local businesses. The size ordinance, passed Nov. 22 by the Planning Commission, does not apply to businesses in the entire city. It is aimed at a developing area covering less than 1 square mile along M-83 north of the city’s center. Robert Labelle, an attorney for the anti-Wal-Mart group Citizens for Frankenmuth First, said the ordinance was legal, and that at least 35 other municipalities have adopted big-box measures. “If Frankenmuth can’t adopt this ordinance,” Labelle told the Saginaw News, “no one can.” The Frankenmuth City Council has already passed an ordinance limiting 24-hour retail operations, and requiring businesses to have extensive landscaping and a traffic impact study. The city is working under a moratorium on big-box developments which runs out on Friday, Jan. 6. Wal-Mart’s regional rep told the media, “I’m concerned that the few are blocking what many want in their community,” the spokesman said, “and what they want is Wal-Mart.” The same spokesman told ABC 12 News: “It is unfortunate when Wal-Mart decided to be a part of this community. It seems every effort was made to block it.” How’s that for sour grapes?
“The few” that Wal-Mart seems to be referring to happens to be the elected city council of Frankenmuth, and its Mayor — plus 3,000 concerned citizens. Zoning power derives from the local police powers of municipalities. Cities and towns have the right to restrict the size and location of land uses. They can set up a zone with unlimited size, and they can set up a zone with limited size. If Wal-Mart does not like what a community comes up with, they can either live by the same limits other retailers must live with, or move to another town that does not care about scale. Many communities have commercial zones with differing requirements by location. In Frankenmuth they obviously care about scale, and that’s hard to grasp with Wal-Mart’s one-size-fits-all mentality. For earlier stories on Sprawl-Busters’ visit to Frankenmuth, search Newsflash by the city’s name.