The City Council in Austin, Minnesota ignored their local businesses and voted instead to rezone land for the world’s largest retailer. It’s not as if local officials couldn’t see the opposition, because local business owner Dan Bissen, and former Mayoral candidate Gerorge Dahl were holding up a hand-printed sign at the Council meeting that read, “Preserve family-owned business. Vote No to rezoning.” Ironically, a majority of the council members wanted “a reason to vote no,” according to the Austin Daily Herald, but the city’s lawyer left them with the impression (incorrectly) that if they denied rezoning they’d lose in court. The Herald explained that “all but one were satisfied that (the) meeting was not the time to halt — or at least restrict — the commercial giant’s plans.” In fact, the point of rezoning is the best time to challenge a developer. Councilor Dick Pacholl, who voted against the rezoning, told his colleagues, “Are we gonna listen to people? Are we gonna finally do our job? As a citizen of Austin, I am against it. As a council member, I will vote with the citizens,” he said to cheers from the audience. The City’s lawyer told the Council they had presented “no legal argument to deny the rezoning request.” The lawyer said the city’s comprehensive plan identifies the land surrounding this parcel as being slated for future commercial development. Two council members said they voted for the rezoning, despite their concerns for nearby condo owners, because the city’s attorney said that such concerns could not be addressed during a rezoning. The rezoning needed 5 votes, if these two councilors had stuck by their beliefs, the rezoning would have failed. The lawyer said the concerns of Councilors could be brought up once the plat and conditional use permit came before the Council. If residents do not use their legal right to challenge the rezoning, the city will take up the specific Wal-Mart plans in September. The citizens and business owners were not represented by an attorney. Local resident George Dahl told the Council, “Everybody in this room knows that Wal-Mart destroys communities.” KIMT news TV reported Dahl as saying, “When it comes to building the new store, I’ll stand in front of a bulldozer if somebody asks me too.” One city council member displayed a predisposing bias towards the plan. “It’s gonna happen.” A local resident wrote the following report to Sprawl-Busters: “Austin is a small town (about 25,000 pop.) near the southern border of Minnesota. It’s the home of Hormel Foods. The NW part of town has expanded greatly in the last ten years with additions of Target, Staples, Wendy’s and Arby’s to the already heavily concentrated street of business. On same road are two large grocery stores, KMart, ShopKo, our local mall, and several other local businesses. Wal-Mart wants to build a 207,000 s.f. store with a parking lot of 1,000 spaces on this main road with desires of buying out two local shops and some residential land. Matt Wagner, owner of Wagner’s Hardware right next to Dolan’s, would not agree to sell as he said “He is not ready to retire.” Next to proposed lot is The Oaks Condominiums that houses many retirees. They are extremely upset with the idea of Wal-Mart coming to town.”
This case underscores the need for local opponents to have their own lawyer, and not rely on the opinions of the city’s lawyer. Rezoning is not a right, and no landowner is entitled to rezoning. It’s a discretionary decision. To deny rezoning, local officials must rely on the rezoning criteria in their zoning code, and their comprehensive plan. Just because land is to be used commercially, does not mean that a rezoning for a big box retailer is automatically guaranteed. Concern for the impact on surrounding land values, the character of the built environment, traffic implications, can all be discussed during a rezoning. If rezoning were automatic, it would make zoning irrelevant. Any property could be rezoned at any time. Local residents have a very limited time to appeal this rezoning decision, but they should clearly be seeking independent legal advice.