Wal-Mart’s dreams of annexing land into Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to build a 180,000 s.f. supercenter are over — for now. Last night, the City Council voted 7-0 against the plan. The “preannexation agreement” was rejected, to the applause of the roughly 70 people who attended the council meeting. According to the Green Bay Press Gazette, opponents of the Wal-Mart plan marched to city hall, urging officials to ban big box retailers from the city. Now the Planning Commission will take up a matter being pushed by local residents: capping the size of big box stores at no more than 50,000 s.f. Before voting on the “preannexation agreement”, Sturgeon Bay Alderman Dave McAllister told the crowd, “This is so flawed the consequences could be huge. As I read this, if we sign it, we’re fully obligated to do everything they want — to practically annex the property and give them the zoning.” But another Alderman suggested that the city hold a referendum next fall to see how county voters feel about the issue.
I suspect that the councilman who called for a referendum just wants to get out of the hot seat, and pass responsibility for the Wal-Mart issue to the voters. Wal-Mart likes county-wide referendums, because they can spend half a million or more trying to influence the vote, while the citizen’s group holds bake sales to raise funds. It’s called “corporate democracy,” and the side with the most money has a distinct advantage. For now, Sturgeon Bay has taken the right step. This “preannexation” agreement is a strategy to tie public officials’ hands early on in the process, essentially circumventing local zoning requirements. They approach the city with a “package” deal that does the annexation and zoning in an advance agreement, putting local planning and zoning boards in a big box legally — even before the matter comes to them. Any “agreements” like this should be rejected out of hand, and the applicant forced to go through the normal process that every other developer must perform. But the story in Sturgeon Bay is not likely over. Wal-Mart will return with another “agreement,” or go through the standard annexation process.