City officials in Moab, Utah have mocked the idea of a limit on superstore size by passing this week an ordinance that looks like a cap, but is really a spoof of the idea. Wal-Mart currently has 29 supercenters in the state of Utah, plus 2 discount stores, 7 Sam’s Clubs, and 5 Neighborhood Markets. It has also run into significant opposition to its expansion in places like Salt Lake City, Centerville, and Sandy. The southern Utah city of Moab has a population of less than 5,000 people. The city is known for its redrock sightseers, white-water river runners and fat-tire cyclists. The city is the gateway to the Arches National Park. This week, the Moab City Council, by a one-vote margin, moved a step closer to becoming the gateway to retail sprawl. What began as a smart growth effort to limit the size of retail stores, by a 3-2 vote has turned into a call for sprawl. The City Council took a recommendation for a size cap from its own Planning Commission, and turned it on its head. The Moab Planning Commission submitted a plan calling for limiting large retailers to 75,000 s.f. But according to the Salt Lake City Tribune, the City Council amended that proposal to raise the roof on sprawl to an absurd 200,000 s.f. — which in fact is no limit at all. Only the very biggest Wal-Mart supercenters would be excluded. Wal-Mart national average for superstore size is still listed at 185,000 s.f., so the Moab “cap” is really the ‘sky’s the limit’ kind of ordinance. “It was imperative the city do it,” Councilman Rob Sweeten, who voted for the ordinance, told The Tribune. Sweeten rationalized his vote by saying that if Moab banned superstores, they would simply set up shop south of Moab in San Juan County. Moab would end up getting all the traffic, and none of the tax revenues. Instead of working with San Juan County to put on a similar size cap, Sweeten caved into his fears about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart played the fear card when it approached the state’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration about parcels of land south of Moab in Spanish Valley. “It’s a sad thing to see,” Moab resident Chris Baird told The Tribune. Baird led an effort to put in place a moratorium on big boxes, and helped the Planning Commission craft its 75,000 s.f. cap. “Resort towns, especially, need to preserve their senses of place,” Baird said. “It’s that sense of place that brings people here and drives the economy.” Mayor Dave Sakrison, who only votes in the event of a tie, told the newspaper that he would have preferred a smaller cap on big boxes in Moab. A 120,000 s.f. limit had been suggested. The Mayor, who has owned for many years Dave’s Corner Market, no doubt understands that Wal-Mart will put many small businesses in his city in a corner. “I would have preferred a smaller size, but I can see why they went ahead with it,” the Mayor said.Canyon Country will become Box Country if officials in southern Utah are not smart about their growth plans.
This story illustrates what happens when one community is played off against another. The lack of regional planning throughout Utah — and most of the country — allows Wal-Mart to enter a community with two or three sites in mind — and to play one site off against another in a bidding war. Or, in this case, a defensive war. The Moab City Council took a panic vote. They were scared into taking the negative impacts in the hope of some tax revenues. In exchange, they become known as the Gateway to the Redrock Wal-Mart. But there is no reason why the City Council in Moab cannot reverse this ill-considered vote, and begin working with San Juan County to contain suburban sprawl. Readers are urged to email Councilor Rob Sweeten at http://www.moabcity.org/contact.cfm?id=1149377679291 with the following message: “Councilman Sweeten, As someone who voted for the meaningless size “cap” of 200,000 s.f., I urge you to move reconsideration of this ill-conceived vote, and take up again the proposal submitted to you by your Planning Commission for a 75,000s.f. cap. There is no other “cap” ordinance in the country as high as 200,000 s.f.. By its very nature, the Moab ordinance mocks the idea of limiting the scale of buildings in a small community. A store 4 times the size of a football field is totally out of character with Canyon country. Wal-Mart builds supercenters today at 99,000 s.f. Why would a city with less than 5,000 people want to double that size, and even exceed Wal-Mart’s own national average supercenter size of 185,000s.f.? Please move to reconsider your vote at the next meeting of the Council, and come up with a cap that really reflects the character of Moab. Then extend your hand to San Juan County to get them to consider the same limits. Only by working regionally will you be able to solve your future grown pressures. Make Wal-Mart fit Moab, not the reverse.”