Last night, local residents in Great Falls, Montana told their city commissioners that it was time to impose limits on big box sprawl in their Land Development Code. But the 5 City Commissioners were reluctant to limit developers, and put further discussion on a size cap off for two weeks. Residents have been pushing for a cap of 100,000 s.f. on new stores. The city’s Planning Board has already approved the idea of a size cap, plus a requirement that any store over 75,000 s.f. conduct an economic impact analysis of the impact on city income vs. expenses. Local farmer Richard Liebert said the city should be promoting responsible growth that enhances locally owned businesses, not growth that destroys them. Wal-Mart already has a discount store in Great Falls (which will close), and has proposed a 204,000 s.f. replacement for Great Falls that would be more than twice the size cap. A Wal-Mart supporter last night told commissioners that the term “big box store” was derogatory. Smaller businesses, he noted, aren’t called “wedge-shaped, one-floor or basement businesses.” According to the Great Falls Tribune, speakers at the hearing then started referred to big box stores as “large format retail store.” One major landowner in the city, who has been courted by Wal-Mart in the past, suggested that the only issue with business development is whether it satisfies customers’ demands. In other words, zoning is irrelevant — the free marketplace should determine where stores go, and how big they are. “Please reject these punishing proposals and allow Great Falls to reach its potential,” the landowner said. Another resident warned that Great Falls is losing its small-town feel as bigger stores force out some of the old, smaller ones. Resients noted that uncontrolled growth in Bozeman, Montana has reached the point where some people now refer to the city as Boze-Angeles. But City Commissioner John Rosenbaum told residents, “we shouldn’t try to direct free enterprise.” The other commissioners said the city can address the issue of size through the conditional use permit process. “Are we prostituting the city with large retail stores?” one Commissioner rhetorically asked. “I don’t think we are.” The city’s Mayor weighed in as well. Mayor Dona Stebbins told the audience that Great Falls “already has the tools in place to control growth.” But clearly many of her constituents disagree.
Sprawl-Busters reported on April 10, 2006 that a proposal for a second Wal-Mart in Great Falls had suddenly been withdrawn. Wal-Mart said it was pulling out of the project “due to change in the Great Falls market… Those changes forced us to take a step back and look at whether this is the right time for a second store in Great Falls.” Wal-Mart’s plans to annex land into Great Falls, Montana had been dealt a setback because of a provision in the city’s zoning code that requires any retail store larger than 60,000 s.f. to get a conditional use permit. Part of the CUP review process requires the Planning Board to support the statement that “The diverse retail economy is desirable in that it provides consumer choice and fosters competition.” When the Wal-Mart plan came to the Planning Board, they deadlocked 4-4 against the Annexation, and Wal-Mart pulled out. The Chairman of the Planning Board said at the time, “I still remain concerned about the impact that particular business has on communities. I don’t think it’s a good impact for the community and I think this is positive news.” The citizen’s group that was formed to fight the Wal-Mart store, and to put a cap on retail building size, is called Great Falls First, and their slogan is: “Big Sky, Not Big Box.” For local contacts in Great Falls, email [email protected]