It’s been roughly three years since Sprawl-Busters wrote about the Wal-Mart battle in Bedford, Michigan. On February 2, 2007, residents in Bedford were celebrating a major legal victory over a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. But the landowner will not let go of his dream to make millions off a Wal-Mart deal.
Judge Joseph A. Costello of the Monroe County Circuit Court ruled against a Ford dealer in Bedford who had filed a lawsuit against the Township over the denial of a rezoning request for land.
Sprawl-Buster’s reported on October 29, 2006 that this battle over Wal-Mart goes back to 1976, when the owners of a Ford dealership bought 51 acres of residential land, and wanted roughly 8.5 acres rezoned to C-3 so they could move their car dealership out of nearby downtown Temperance.
The township was adopting a new zoning ordinance, and in the process accomplished the C-3 rezoning that the family had been seeking. But in the early 1980s, the family came back to request a C-2 rezoning, allowing a shopping center or office building use. This was also approved. In 1992 the township had Monroe County Planning redo the township’s zoning map and an error was apparently made. The western half of the parcel, which had always been residential, was incorrectly listed as C-2 commercial. The error was not found until rumors began in 2001 that the family was planning to sell the land to Wal-Mart.
The Whitman family sued Bedford Township. In 2003, the property owners asked the township to rezone the northern half of their property to C-3 for the purpose of building a Wal-Mart. The Judge’s ruling in 2007 puts plans for the 204,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on hold. The site abuts Indians Acres, one of Bedford’s largest subdivisions, which explains why residents felt the Ford dealer was trying to run them over.
In a 44-page decision, the Judge found that the township board’s actions were neither arbitrary, nor capricious. He also ruled that Bedford’s zoning law and Master Plan did not exclude big box stores. “This is great,” one member of Bedford Watch told The Toledo Blade newspaper. “It shows that a small group of people can make a difference in the township. We stuck to what we believed in to keep it a small community.”
The lawyer for the township told The Blade, “You are talking about the development of large-scale retail right next door, literally, to a longstanding subdivision.” Whitman Ford testified that they relied on the incorrect designation on the township’s zoning map to market their land. But Judge Costello ruled that Whitman Ford had other ways to check the accuracy of the zoning, and filed petitions multiple times to rezone the property before 1990, when it was correctly marked residential on the map. “Over a continuous and significant period of time the plaintiff not only should have known but actually knew the true status of the zoning of the property,” Judge Costello wrote.
Three years later, the Wal-Mart battle in Bedford is still being watched. Bedford Watch activist Judy Frankowski filed the following update:
“Our battle against the rezoning started in 2001 with the announcement that Jon Whitman, property owner was selling to Wal-Mart. He invited the adjoining neighbors to a dinner to make the announcement. After a lot of pressure our Township Board turned down his rezoning request and the Whitmans sued. Citing an error on the zoning map (it was a printing error) The township won in court in 2007. He again asked for rezoning and our Township Board agreed to rezone 5 of the 6 parcels he was asking for.
My group, Bedford Watch, reversed that decision by referendum vote on May 5, 2008. This required getting over 1,700 signatures on a petition. We were able to have over 2,400 sign our petition. The referendum was won by almost 300 votes. Not a huge victory, but in our community a good turn out for a non-election year.
Currently, Mr. Whitman/Whitman Ford is again suing the township, I imagine in hopes of overturning the referendum vote. His attorney has subpoenaed our documents trying to question our facts regarding traffic, crime and all of the other disturbances that urban sprawl brings. I also think they are trying to question the legality of our referendum.
We did a lot of leg work to cross “t’s” and dot “i’s”, so I am confident that the referendum will hold. The trial will begin Jan. 10, 2011 in the court of Judge Costello in Monroe, Michigan. This is the same judge who ruled in our favor before.
We certainly feel that most of the members of our Township Board should be more supportive of their constituents. We’ve had to make a lot of noise to get this far. An added note…Jon Whitman is the property owner and his cousin/former accountant is a trustee on the Bedford Township Board. He voted for the rezoning and wrote a guest columnist article in our local paper accusing us of using scare tactics in the campaign. The referendum campaign was managed by Citizens to Preserve Bedford.
Mr. Whitman has requested many zoning changes and has refused any compromises offered to him. Now his attorney claims it is not about a Wal-Mart, but Mr. Whitman mentions Wal-Mart in every open letter he writes to our community.”
According to the Bedford Watch website, it appears that the Whitman family got to select the time and date at which the Township Board would actually vote on the Whitman rezoning. Days after the new township board was sworn in, the new township board voted to allow the majority of the Whitman parcels to be zoned C-2 and C-3, the highest commercial zoning permitted in Bedford Township.
On September 20, 2005 under Supervisor Walt Wilburn, the Township’s size limits for commercial land were changed to be much more permissive: “All buildings and structures, when considered collectively as a whole, shall not exceed an area greater than 25% of the net parcel area. Net parcel is defined as the gross parcel area minus the road right-of-way.”
According to Bedford Watch, the current building size limits based on acreage, (one acre is equal to 43,560 square feet), would allow a 204,000 square foot big box store to be built with only 4.68 acres of land mass and would only require an 18.72 acre C-2 or C-3 parcel, not including road right of way.
Bedford Watch has been working to change the size limits back to something more manageable. “Just as Walt Wilburn, the Bedford Township Board and the Bedford Township Planning Commission changed the C-1, C-2 and C-3 size limits in 2005, we strongly feel the size limits can be changed back to what they were originally in 2002… we do not feel that the size limits of commercial zoning also needed to be increased in Bedford Township with 32,000 residents.”
At a Bedford Township Board meeting on October 20, 2009, one of the Bedford Watch members asked the Bedford Township Board members to initiate the planning process to commission a review for the current C-1, C-2, C-3 and PBO zoning. The Township Board met again this week to consider a size cap in Bedford.
This battle has been dragging on for a decade. Bedford Watch provides this background about its efforts: “We have spent almost 10 years of our lives and donated hundreds of hours of our time researching what a big box store would do to Bedford Township. This included going to township, planning commission and Monroe County board meetings; hiring and talking to lawyers, studying and reading books, contacting 60 Minutes, watching the latest movies on Wal-Mart; attending the court trial of Bedford Township vs. Whitman Ford; going out of town to visit 3 Wal-Marts; contacting local and regional police, fire, sewer and drain commission departments; getting a referendum on the ballot; collecting 2,433 signatures, collecting donations and talking to professionals in the industry to gather factual information to provide to the residents of Bedford Township.”
Readers are urged to email Bedford Supervisor Walt Wilburn at [email protected] with the following message:
“After letting the Wal-Mart controversy pull apart your community for a decade, its time to pass a size cap that will place some realistic limits on the scale of big box developments. The original Wal-Mart plan is much larger than the superstores the company is building today. In some communities, Wal-Mart has built superstores as ‘small’ as 78,000 s.f. This is still huge, and when you add in the parking area, you are looking at a sea of asphalt surrounded by a wall of cement. This is the worst of suburban sprawl, and the township of Bedford does not need a project of this scale.
As for the January court case, you were right when you told the Toledo Blade in July of 2009, ‘We were doing the best job we could within the law for Mr. Whitman and for the community.’ Defend the Township’s decision, and send your legal bill to Whitman Ford.”
For more background on this long battle, go to bedfordwatch.com