Sprawl-Busters reported on June 26, 2005 that the city council in Harrison, Ohio had rejected a zone change request to build a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Wal-Mart first filed their proposal in 2003. But when Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit against the city, Harrison’s attorneys predicted the city could lose as much as $3 million if the case went to trial. Harrison Mayor Dan Gieringer said such a loss would lead to mandatory layoffs in all city departments. Harrison officials eventually agreed to a “consent decree” to settle out of court with Wal-Mart. The agreement required the company to reduce the size of its store from 205,000 s.f. to 185,000 s.f., and to donate 20 acres of the 54 acre site to the city for a park. The agreement also called for Wal-Mart to put up $1.8 million towards the cost of a $6 million bridge to cross over Interstate 74. After the consent decree was announced, local opponents in Harrison began circulating a referendum petition to block the rezoning, and got enough signatures to put the matter on the ballot. In January of 2007, the Harrison County Board of Elections ruled that the project could be put on a referendum. Wal-Mart promptly challenged the referendum before the Board of Elections — but they lost their appeal. Wal-Mart had argued that the consent decree was an administrative matter, not a legislative matter, and that administrative matters are not subject to a referendum. The retailer then announced that it would appeal the Board of Elections ruling to Harrison County Court. Today, a Harrison County Judge issued a permanent injunction, preventing the voter referendum. The judge ruled that the Harrison City Council’s consent agreement to settle the original Wal-Mart lawsuit was an administrative decision, not subject to referendum. The judge’s ruling, however, can be appealed, which means the Harrison Residents for Responsible Development, who have been fighting Wal-Mart since the proposal was first unveiled, will still have time to get the referendum on a Hamilton County ballot this year. The Judge’s ruling specifically indicated that Harrison’s zoning decisions would be subject to voter referendum under Ohio law, but a decision to settle a lawsuit is not. The Judge said the residents could not force the city to wage a legal battle against Wal-Mart. “To allow a group of citizens, however well-intentioned, to force Harrison to continue to litigate … would have the effect of converting Harrison’s charter into a financial suicide pact,” the Judge wrote in his ruling.
Actually, the “financial suicide pact” has already been signed, when city officials agreed to approve a 186,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. Harrison’s existing retail base will suffer from that decision, and the only thing standing between local businesses and financial demise is the proposed referendum. “If you live in this town, you know the name of the people who run your hardware store,” Dave Small, the owner of Small’s Do It Best Hardware Store wrote to Sprawl-Busters nearly two years ago. “With all these big boxes, pretty soon it will become generic America. It’s hard to find those unique little mom-and-pop stores that give a flavor to the community. People are trying to hold on to that small-town feel, that feeling of community.” The citizens have been doing a pretty decent job of holding off Wal-Mart for nearly four years now. Win or lose, Wal-Mart has already lost in Harrison. They’ve lost hundreds of millions in sales at that location because of citizen activism. The court battle is not over yet, and the referendum battle still may happen. Wal-Mart loves referendums, because they pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the vote. Why not? They’ve already pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Harrison battle, and have no sales to show for it. What other retailer in America would be forced into such a losing proposition? Wal-Mart shareholders would do well to ask that question at the upcoming Wal-Mart annual meeting.