Not so fast, Wal-Mart! On July 21, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that three County Commissioners would decide the fate of a Wal-Mart expansion project in Park City, Utah. Wal-Mart wants to expand its store in Park City, population just over 8,000, into a Supercenter. The decision falls to the Summit County Commissioners. “I never make up my mind until I go through the public hearing and weigh all of the public comment and evidence,” Commissioner Sally Elliott told the Park City Record newspaper. “Public hearings for me are true opportunities for me to learn, so I never make a decision in advance of a public hearing.” On July 23rd, Sally Elliott voted against the expansion. Wal-Mart wants to expand its store on North Landmark Drive by adding a 43,000 s.f. grocery store. The County Commissioners held their hearing on Wal-Mart’s conditional use request to expand on July 23rd. Wal-Mart had already snowed the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, which voted 4-0 in favor of the expansion. The store currently is 73,000 s.f.. Under the expansion, the store would grow to 115,758 s.f. Commissioner Elliott told The Record that most of the people she’s spoken to don’t want the Wal-Mart to expand. “I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents, and all of the input I’ve gotten is negative,” she said. Summit County Commission Chairman Ken Woolstenhulme tipped his hand even before the public hearing was held. He told the newspaper he will vote for the expansion. “I thought that we were pretty well all on board in making the expansion,” Woolstenhulme said. “We’ve known that this is coming and that this is in the works, and we’ve known all along that this was going to happen.” It turns out that Woolstenhulme sees the Wal-Mart expansion as part of a larger land deal. Wal-Mart gets its grocery story in exchange for helping to rebuild Landmark Drive by selling land to Summit County. “We had to get some property from Wal-Mart in order to do that,” Woolstenhulme explained. The existing Wal-Mart in Park City was built in 1991, when the county had few, if any, zoning restrictions. One member of the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission took the position that if the impacts of the store were addressed, the County Commission had no power to stop the expansion. “we don’t have a choice legally, or we could get sued.” “It’s Wal-Mart’s position that it isn’t really going to impact traffic,” the Planning Commissioner told the newspaper. “We can’t say ‘no’ to expanding a legal nonconforming use if the applicant has mitigated its impacts, and agrees to conform with the code in every respect but the expansion.” The third County Commissioner, Bob Richer, would not share his opinion before the July 23rd vote. According to The Record, the Commissioners decided at their meeting this week not to vote on the plan at all. They must have been affected by the 25 or so people who came to the hearing and spoke out against the plan. Commissioner Elliott made a motion to deny the expansion — but she couldn’t get either of her two colleagues to second it. Commissioner Richer offered his own motion to delay the vote, which was unanimously adopted. “We haven’t taken fully into account the additional traffic that might be caused by an increase in size by Wal-Mart,” Elliott said. Richer echoed concerns from residents about traffic congestion at Kimball Junction, and asked for more time to review the traffic reports. “Perhaps we should take a week, two weeks, or two months to digest it,” he said. One of the County’s lawyers told the Commissioners that for Wal-Mart to get a conditional use permit it only has to show it can mitigate the impacts of the expansion. His comments were meant to discourage the Commissioners from denying the plan. This project already has already raised traffic concerns at the county’s planning commission, which denied the expansion based on traffic. Advocates for the Wal-Mart say that Summit County has started a widening of the road by Wal-Mart, which will ease the traffic problems when completed. But if the County wants to stop this project, trafffic is just one of its tools.
The Summit County Commissioners have not set the next date to consider this proposal. With a divided, three-member Commission, this voted could go either way. As usual, the attorney for the county is recommending giving the developer what they asked for. The mere threat of a lawsuit from developers is usually enough to cause the risk-averse legal representatives of the county or city to caution their clients not to stand up to companies like Wal-Mart. This is a mistake, because local officials have much more power and control than they imagine. The courts are reluctant to substitute their judgment for that of local officials interpreting their own bylaws — unless the officials have acted in a way that is arbitrary and capricious. In this case, traffic impacts are a serious consideration, and one of the objectives of zoning in many communities is to prevent undue congestion of traffic in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of local residents. Many cities and towns accept the developer’s traffic studies as gospel, never seeking to have an independent traffic engineer perform a peer review. In this case, the County Commissioners are not traffic engineers. They cannot “digest” the technical aspects of the traffic impact statements. The Park Record newspaper thinks the Commissioners should vote No on the Wal-Mart expansion. “It has taken Summit County many years to learn how to say no to big-box developers,” the newspaper editorialized on July 11th. “And that lesson has not been easy.” According to the newspaper, when companies like Kmart and Wal-Mart came to town they wore down local officials “with promises of community amenities if approved or expensive lawsuits if denied.” The Record says one local resident even chained himself to a bulldozer to stop the Kmart. But the store opened anyway, “struggled to survive, and finally closed leaving an empty eyesore.” The Summit County Commission has required retailers like Smith’s and Albertson’s to cut back the size of their projects to create smaller, more neighborhood-friendly stores. “But now they are facing the baddest big box of them all Wal-Mart,” the newspaper says, “and the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission has already caved.” The paper adds: “Sorry guys, allowing Wal-Mart to expand from 72,000 to 115,758 square feet does not represent the will of your constituents. Wal-Mart has a reputation for crushing locally owned businesses, for importing goods of questionable quality, for exploiting employees and generally strong arming community planning boards. They haven’t done much to counter that image here in Summit County. It would be a shame to reward that kind of behavior with permission to do it on an even bigger scale. This is especially true when giving Wal-Mart a green flag to go into the grocery business could put nearby established groceries out of business.” County Planners say Wal-Mart will spruce up their ‘old’ store if they are allowed to expand. “Gee, what a nice offer,” The Record says. “How about demanding that they take better care of the square feet they have and become better corporate citizens before asking for favors.” Readers are urged to email the 3 County Commissioners at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Commissioners, You have worked hard to limit the scale of retail stores at Kimball Junction. Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. You can refuse a conditional use permit — that’s why it’s a conditional use. Wal-Mart is not coming to you for rubber stamp approval. The existing Wal-Mart is already a nonconforming use. Don’t make it a bigger non-conforming use. You have squeezed companies like Albertson’s to get smaller — be consistent. You are not required to allow big stores to expand. Your small population base cannot support a supercenter. This store will harm businesses in neighboring towns as well. All this will increase is the crime and the traffic. This next thing you should do is ask the developer to underwrite the cost of an independent peer review of Wal-Mart’s traffic plan. Don’t make a decision with unbiased facts in your hands.”