Sprawl-Busters traveled to the township of Charlevoix, Michigan last year to help that small community defend itself from a big attack from a proposed 157,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Wal-Mart eventually withdrew its plans for Charlevoix. But the community did not forget its narrow brush with sprawl, and two communities are now going on the offense to keep out big boxes. Both the city of Charelevoix, and the neighboring township of Charlevoix, have amended their zoning codes to eliminate out-of-scale stores inside their borders. In Charlevoix city, no single retail store can exceed 45,000 s.f. In the township, stores larger than 90,000 s.f. are prohibited. In addition, any stores larger than 20,000 s.f. will require a special-use permit, and any store above 50,000 s.f. or larger must conduct a market feasibility and traffic study. Developers would also have to produce a plan for the building’s reuse if the store is ever closed. The township battled off Wal-Mart, led by a group called This Is Our Town, which warned that a supercenter would change dramatically the community’s small town ambiance, and force local businesses to close. The group collected more than 2,000 petition signatures against the store, and invited Sprawl-Busters to town. This Is Our Town president Robert Hoffman told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that the new zoning limits were “a very positive thing.” “I don’t think it’s anti-growth and anti-business; I think it’s planned growth and planned business development,” Hoffman explained. “Charlevoix is known for its small-town appeal. If we have a number of big-box stores, it will start to look like any other exit off any expressway.” Traverse City’s Fred Hoisington, a retired engineer who helped draft the new ordinances, told the Record-Eagle, “Wal-Mart and other big-box stores have affected existing businesses within the communities where they choose to locate. Essentially what this ordinance is saying is, ‘Tell us what the impact is likely to be,’ because people don’t want those adverse impacts to hurt their downtowns, to hurt similar stores.” Hoisington crafted the new zoning language from the many ordinances that are now in effect in other communities across the nation. “There’s a lot of stuff out there. We pulled from all over the place,” he said.
The Record-Eagle newspaper promptly endorsed the new zoning restrictions. In an editorial, the paper said, “Local officials should… find a way… to manage growth in a way that is consistent with the long-range vision and nature of the community; to ensure that the new development won’t have adverse effects on infrastructure and traffic; and to force developers, before the fact, to do market studies and make provisions for the building if it should close.” The newspaper noted that “it’s past time for communities to start making such requirements a normal part of planning and zoning decisions… For years, developers and their attorneys have been able to frame the debate as a fairness issue; keeping them out while allowing other stores is unfair, and thus illegal. It’s time to turn the issue around. Communities have a right to shape their future, maintain their “feel” and prevent developments that create traffic and infrastructure problems. This is a start.” For earlier stories on the Charlevoix victory, search Newsflash by the township’s name. For other communities that have adopted size limits, search by “cap”.