A recent public hearing in Urbana, Illinois turned up more anti-Wal-Mart sentiment than the Mayor may have bargained for. Urbana Mayor Tod Satterthwaite sat rhrough a four hour hearing last week. The Mayor’s own father and sister spoke against the plan, according to the News-Gazette. “Even a family can be divided on this,” the Mayor said. “What they (Wal-Mart) have done to other communities is evidence they will not be to our advantage,” the Mayor’s father said. The Mayor’s sister urged the city to avoid going to “the lowest common denominator.”But the city council voted 4-0 to approve the preliminary plat, which includes a 26-acre proposed commercial site. The newspaper described the crowd at the hearing as “overflowing — and overwhelmingly anti-Wal-Mart.” The Mayor tried to argue that Wal-Mart’s plan was “by right”, and all the city could do was seek mitigation of any features of the plan that weren’t to the city’s liking. “They’re not asking for any waivers or any incentives from the city,” the Mayor said. “We don’t have that ability to vote Wal-Mart up or down.” When the land was rezoned months ago, Wal-Mart was not given as the reason for the rezoning. Land is not supposed to be rezoned just for one company. That’s called “contract zoning” and it sppears to be what has happened in Urbana. Such practice turns land use into “designer zoning.” Residents told council members that if they really wanted to stop Wal-Mart, they could. One resident told the hearing Wal-Mart “will absolutely destroy the downtown. A vote for Wal-Mart is to destroy all these local retailers.” To appease local residents, Wal-Mart promised a store with a brick facade, and a bike path, and extra landscaping — things they can easily offer with little added cost. A final review of the site plan is expected within a few weeks.
The Mayor of Urbana’s passive approach towards large scale development in his town is typical of local officials who have sat on their hands for years and done nothing to ensure that development respects the scale and character of the local community. Towns always have more right to reject proposals — even on uses that are considered “by right.” Communities have the right to control the scale and intensity of land use. In this case, the city could have rezoned the land B-1, which is a business zone that prevents very large stores. Clearly the city was rezoning this land to meet the needs of the developer and Wal-Mart. The city sold out its homeowners and neighbors, and then plead helplessness. In fact, they collaborated with the developer at the direct expense of nearby homeowners. In this case, the bad development is made even worse by the complicity of city officials in making it happen, and then trying to absolve themselves of the damage it will cause. For local contacts in Urbana, contact [email protected]