Jock Westbrooks says he has a perfect record. In his years of working for Wal-Mart, he has located over 450 stores, he told The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. But it looks like his luck has run out in the controversial application for a Sam’s Club on the east side of Madison. Wesbrooks said “I’ve never seen this happen before,” after the city’s Plan Commission unanimously rejected on May 20th. a 130,000 s.f. store near Starkweather Creek. The plan has been kicked around for almost two years now, and the Plan Commission asked for too many changes to suit Wal-Mart. The city wanted Sam’s Club to draft a plan to reduce traffic (estimated at 8,000 car trips per day), to use turf grass in their parking lot, and to meet independent design standards called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as certified by the US Green Building Council. Initially, Wal-Mart said it would meet the LEED minimum standards, but then the corporation challenged the city saying ‘Madison does not have the right to propose outside certification.” Instead, Wal-Mart offered to pay the city $75,000, which they said was the cost of getting LEED certification paperwork processed. Wal-Mart said its $75,000 could be used for a neighborhood park or a bike path, but city Alderman Steve Holzman said “we looked at it as a bribe.” The head of Madison’s Urban Design Commission surmised that Wal-Mart just didn’t want to set a precedent of accepting LEEDs standards, because other communities would start exacting the same measures from them. A local group called Sustain Dane opposed the east side Sam’s, saying they would “prefer that smaller, locally owned businesses be built to serve the community and retain the capital generation.” The project was also opposed by Wisconsin Citizen Action. The Alderman whose district would be impacted by the project, said he could not support the project “because of its magnitude”, and that he was not willing to accept a Sam’s Club at the “expense of having gridlock out there.” The city’s lawyer told the Plan Commission that “there are no conditions that reasonably can secure compliance with the ordinance standards”. So traffic problems and the unwillingness by Wal-Mart to produce an “environmentally sensitive” green building, gave the city enough ammunition to ruin Jock’s siting record. Wal-Mart could appeal the decision, but it is unlikely that the City Council would overturn the ruling, according to the Capital Times.
Keep in mind that the land in question here is already commercially zoned. This Madison case reminds us again that developers (and often city planners) will insist that landowners can do as they please if the land is commercially zoned. Readers of this Newsflash page know such statements are simply a misleading, self-serving assertion. Wal-Mart tried to get out from under the LEEDs standards, so any community that wants to push these developers to produce better projects, should amend their local zoning code by adding one sentence to require buildings over a certain size to meet the guidelines promulgated by the US Green Building Council. It’s just one more way to hold developers to a higher standard beyond the big box lowest common denominator mentality.