Two days ago, Sprawl-Busters updated a story from Tucson, Arizona about Wal-Mart’s funding of a ballot campaign to overturn the city’s big box ordinance that limits store size. Tucson has had a big box law since 1999, and Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit several years ago to have it declared unconstitutional — but lost. Wal-Mart hired a local consultant to pay signature gatherers to put the initiative petition on this November’s ballot. In that story, we suggested that city officials might reject Wal-Mart’s petition on legal grounds — and that’s exactly what the city did. Yesterday afternoon the petition was rejected by Tucson city Clerk Kathleen Detrick, who explained that Arizona law prevents initiatives from targeting land-use code such as the big-box ordinance. The city law that Wal-Mart says limits “consumer choice” is a zoning ordinance that limits the space dedicated to grocery sales in retail stores greater than or equal to 100,000 s.f. to no more than 10% of floor space. The law is similar to those passed in other states, most notably California. Wal-Mart’s hired signature gatherers collected 21,934 signatures, twice as many as the 11,615 required for a ballot question. Tucson’s city lawyer communicated with Wal-Mart’s lawyers, and told The Tucson Citizen that he expects Wal-Mart to go to court to get their question on the ballot. The city asserts that state law prohibits ballot initiatives from targeting zoning ordinances because it circumvents the zoning process, including public hearings required by state law. Arizona law allows citizens to challenge a zoning ordinance on the ballot — but it must be done a month before the code goes into effect, not after. Wal-Mart is expected to take legal action promptly now that the city has rejected its petition.
The city has agreed with the attorneys from the United Food and Commercial Workers in this case. The union said Wal-Mart’s petition drive was not allowed under state law. Wal-Mart said recently that it would not have proceeded with the signature gathering if it were not certain that the effort was legal. Now, the retailer will be forced to spend more legal fees to challenge Tucson once again in court. Wal-Mart is busy suing Tucson, rather than trying to find a way to sell underwear and bananas. Years go by, with no new store in place. The climate surrounding the construction of new superstores has become so charged across the country, that what used to be a perfunctory process, has now led to court battles and months — if not years — of delays. Wal-Mart gets the worst of this situation, but other big box retailers like Home Depot, Target and Lowe’s also face similar challenges. Wal-Mart shareholders should be asking corporate leaders why their stores spawn such controversy, and ask how the company could lower its profile, shrink its footprint, and enter communities like Tucson without all the legal background noise. Tucson shows how far Wal-Mart has strayed from being just a retailer. Now the corporation has become a cultural symbol of uncontrolled growth, and irresponsible development. As a result, its store growth is being stymied, and many stores the company planned on producing in 2008, will now not come on line until 2009 — assuming they survive the political gauntlet. Even after years of confrontation, no one at Wal-Mart seems inclined to change its method of operating at the local level. Rather than work with the “locals,” Wal-Mart seems content to try to crush them. In so doing, they are wasting corporate time and money. “Why all the opposition,” one former Wal-Mart official said. “We’re not a nuclear waste dump.” For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “Tucson.”