Sometimes Wal-Mart is its own worst enemy, by being unable to read the reactions of local residents to their building plans. Years of contentious battles can go by, before Wal-Mart will bend to community demands. Such inflexibility leads to lengthy delays, and lost sales. On December 21, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that what began in a great rush by Wal-Mart, had turned into a costly waiting game for the retailer. More than four years ago, on December 8, 2004, Wal-Mart had rushed a zoning proposal to the city offices in Tumwater, Washington just three hours before the City Council voted to put into place a moratorium on large scale retail developments. There are already two Wal-Mart stores in Thurston County, in Yelm and Lacey. Tumwater Council members approved the ordinance, which prohibits permits for retail stores larger than 125,000 square feet. The Olympian newspaper described city officials as “stunned” by the Wal-Mart proposal. The retailer wanted to build a 207,000 s.f supercenter and a gas station on 21 acres between a Costco and Home Depot on Littlerock Road. All of this in the shadow of beautiful Mount Rainier. One Council member said Wal-Mart “must have scrambled pretty darn hard to get their application in,” given the short notice time. Then, in late June, 2007, the city council issued a site plan approval for a superstore that was slightly reduced at 187,054 s.f. (but has a 19,700 s.f. garden center as well) and deleted the gas station. The scaled-down site plan was approved with conditions and changes. The city said it would approve two versions of the smaller store, with some roadway conditions changed. “This is an allowed use for that zoning district,” the city’s development services director told the newspaper. “We don’t regulate the size of the building, but we do regulate tree preservation and minimums and maximums for parking spaces.” In response to the city’s approval, a group called The Tumwater Liveable Community (TLC), a local citizen’s group, and Local 367 of the United Food & Commercial Workers filed appeals of Wal-Mart’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the project. According to the appeal, Wal-Mart’s FEIS “contains inadequate, incomplete, and, at times, inaccurate information on the probable significant adverse impacts of the Wal-Mart proposal and alternatives.” The Seattle law firm of Bricklin Newman Dold represented the group. The appeal charged that the FEIS “fails to comply with the policies and requirements of the State Environmental Policy Act… (and) fails to protect the right of the citizens of Tumwater to a safe and healthful environment.” The two groups asked that Wal-Mart be required to submit a revised environmental report that eliminates negative impacts on the environment. A Hearing Examiner in Tumwater, Rodney Kerslake, held hearings on the citizen appeal in late October, 2007, and ruled in favor of Wal-Mart, and against the Tumwater Liveable Community and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local No. 367, rejecting their arguments over the inadequacy of the project’s environmental review and the city’s site-plan approval. The 31 page decision said “the appeal of the various land-use permits issued by the city for the Wal-Mart proposal are affirmed and the appeal of those decisions is denied.” “We are excited about the decision and are looking forward to serving our customers in Tumwater,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said at the time. But the Hearing Examiner’s ruling was appealed to the Tumwater City Council, which voted in support of Wal-Mart. Opponents knew at that time that further appeal could delay the project another year. That’s exactly what happened. On September 30, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Thurston County Superior Court Judge had rejected an appeal by Tumwater Liveable Community and the UFCW Local 367. The court decision upholds the Hearings Examiner and City Council votes. In a 4 page decision, the court ruled that “the environmental impact statement is adequate… the project is consistent with the Littlerock Road Subarea Plan and the general commercial zone.” But the story was not over. This week, the Olympian newspaper reports that Wal-Mart had decided to cut down the size of its superstore. In an addendum to a final supplemental environmental-impact statement, Wal-Mart has agreed to cut the size of the retail building by 21,799 s.f., reduce the size of an outdoor seasonal sales area by 13,455 s.f., and lower the number of parking spaces in their lot from 961 to 755. Wal-Mart also consented to ban overnight camping in RVs outside of the store, and will not sell guns. Tumwater’s Development Services Director told the newspaper the Wal-Mart project has been like a marathon. “It’s gone longer than any project I’ve ever dealt with. We’re getting close to the end.” Wal-Mart’s efforts to open a superstore in Tumwater have been appealed three times. In reaction to the shrinking of the superstore, a spokesman for Tumwater Livable Communities said a smaller Wal-Mart store is a big improvement, but still is far too large for the subarea. “The people who lose are the neighborhoods, the community and small businesses. All are losers.” The citizen’s group could still appeal the site plan addendum.
The citizen’s appeal charged that the Wal-Mart plan was inconsistent with the city’s environmental preservation goals, and did not conform with the city’s tree-preservation law becauses it allowed Wal-Mart to take down more trees than allowed. But the court said the city has the right to waive or modify the rules under its codes if “strict compliance” makes use of the land “impracticable.” Under normal application of the code, Wal-Mart would have to keep 240 trees along its 21 acre site. But their plan kept less than half that amount — 100 trees. But the court said modification to the code was permissible because it was “supported by substantial evidence as to the practical use of the project.” The court also allowed the city’s parking code to be bent to meet Wal-Mart’s needs. This project has already cost Wal-Mart more than four years of delay, and is typical of what is happening across the country. Instead of ribbon cuttings, Wal-Mart first has to pass through local appeals and courts and mounds of legal bills. The TLC said that Wal-Mart’s FEIS “is misleading in many areas, that the manner in which data was collected is prejudicial and fails to accurately account for the real environmental impacts of a proposed Wal-Mart store.” The residents of Tumwater, and the local UFCW, have shown that they can hold up the world’s most powerful retailer for years. That, in itself, is a victory. Readers are encouraged to email the members of the Tumwater City Council at: [email protected] Tell the Council: “It’s great that Wal-Mart has shaved off some of the footprint of its proposed superstore, but the fact remains that Tumwater doesn’t need a building nearly three times the size of a football field. If this project is built, you will have to change the name of Mount Rainier to Mount Walton, because you already have 5 Wal-Mart’s within 25 miles of Tumwater — including a supercenter less than 9 miles away. At one point you passed a moratorium with a building size limit law — so you must be sensitive to the issues of scale. Now its time to prevent this kind of 4 year controversy from happening again by putting a hard and fast limit on the size of new retail buildings. If you don’t, you will continue to receive inappropriate proposals for other big box imitators, who will build their stores, drain the market, and then leave you with empty ‘ghost boxes,’ as Wal-Mart has already done across the nation. You have a choice: lead growth, or follow it. In this case, you are following Wal-Mart’s lead, and it will only hurt your local merchants, and provide Tumwater with little added value economically. Your next act as a Council should be to amend your zoning code to add a size cap on retail buildings.”