Wal-Mart wants to build a 156,000 s.f. superstore on 25 acres of land in Berlin, Wisconsin, across the street from an existing Wal-Mart discount store that will close. But city officials and the retailer have been operating below the radar for so long, that even the local newspaper has criticized the secrecy of the deal. “Berlin city officials need to slow down,” the Oshkosh Northwestern wrote in an editorial today, “remember who they serve and give the public extra time to dig into, digest, debate and, if necessary, dispute the deal their city is brokering with America’s retail giant… The city of Berlin must disclose the developer’s agreement it has or is brokering with Wal-Mart, and it must give its citizens time to ensure it is a fair deal.” On December 16, 2006, local residents told Sprawl-Busters that the City of Berlin had adopted a new Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan in 2003. This 20 year vision statement anticipates that Berlin will have protected and preserved the diversified downtown business district, the wetland and watershed areas along the river, the wooded and open areas, and the agricultural land and avoid urban sprawl wherever possible. But when Wal-Mart proposed building a new store across the street from its current store, the deal also meant wiping out a mobile home park, with 40+ homes and 80+ residents. The property was quickly rezoned by the city from residential to business, and all residents were given eviction notices to be out by May 1, 2007. Last week, the city’s Plan Commission and the City Council were slated to review the site plan and a developer’s agreement — all in one evening. But a citizen’s group called “Smart Growth 54923”, and their attorney, Steve Sorenson of Ripon, Wisconsin, challenged the traffic study and other reports — all of which were produced by Wal-Mart, not independent contractors. “From day one this has been the great mystery of Berlin,” Sorenson told the newspaper. “Nobody has studied the impact.” Berlin Mayor Roberta Erdmann has said nothing publicly about the agreement. The city’s Zoning Administrator told the newspaper that its standard practice to keep the agreement secret during negotiations. “Once it’s done it’s a done deal. This is frustrating for people,” Sorenson said. “I don’t know what (the city is) hiding. It could be completely innocent, but it makes you wonder.” Even though city officials are supposed to review the project as a quasi-judicial review, the fact that the city has been secretely negotiating a deal with Wal-Mart makes the whole “review” process a foregone conclusion. “There are no big surprises in the developer’s agreement. There just aren’t,” city officials said. “We’re covering the cost of all improvements.” But Smart Growth says local residents should have the chance to review and comment on the agreement before it is finalized. The city graciously gave the group 120 seconds to make their case before the Plan Commission. The opponents asked the city to prepare an economic impact study before approving the site plan — which city officials refused to do. Wal-Mart told The Northwestern that their store would force other retailers to become more competitive. The city says it will ask state officials to look at the impact of stormwater runoff on waters downstream from the site — but no independent peer review of traffic, and no economic impact analysis.
80 people lost their homes just so Wal-Mart could expand its home. The newspaper called it right when it editorialized today that city officials had given their own taxpayers a “public snub” by keeping the developer’s agreement private. The editorial said, “Fortunately, city leaders can still make things right. It will require openness and plenty of time for citizens to figure out exactly what their municipality is about to ink with a retail Colossus, angling to build a new, controversial Supercenter.” Citizens have been shut out of the process in Berlin, as if this review were taking place in World War II Berlin, with tight government control. The Mayor and her city council have thrown up a Berlin Wall of secrecy around the Berlin Wal-Mart. “This is bad government,” the newspaper complained. Readers are encouraged to call Mayor Erdmann at 920-361-5403, or email her at: [email protected] . Tell the Mayor to tear down the Berlin Wal of secrecy, and give the citizens of your city more than two minutes to reaction to your closed door form of government.