The marathon 3.5 year battle over a 168,000 s.f. proposed Wal-Mart in Pittsfield Township, Michigan reached another decision point this week, when the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to approve the retailer’s site plan. According to the Ann Arbor News, the Commission members said they had to vote for the plan because “it did not violate any state or local laws or regulations.” Such passivity reflects a profound misunderstanding of their review role. Commissioners are not simply looking for violations of regulations, they can examine the intensity of use, for example, and the impact of significant traffic increases on roadway capacity. The reasonableness of the site plan in the surrounding context, the impact on surrounding property values — these concerns are legitimate functions of review boards — not simply considering if the project met the minimum standards in the code. In such cases, the review board is reduced to a rubber stamp function, with no discretionary power. “I’ve done everything I could possibly do in my legal capacity as a planning commissioner,” one Commissioner pleaded. “I would hope that people would respect that we are following the law.” Such a helpless attitude has led to a major recall effort by citizens who hope to remove three township supervisors for failing to take proper action to stop the Wal-Mart store. The group Pittsfield Community First has argued since the beginning of this epic battle that the Wal-Mart store will create a traffic hazard for the nearby Saline High School and Harvest Elementary School, and that the township had not done a public safety impact study. The citizen’s group asked Wal-Mart to withdraw its proposal, and to agree to do employee background checks for criminal sexual conduct, limit store hours, not sell firearms, secure inhalants and other products sometimes abused by youths, provide 24-hour parking lot security and agree not to expand the store in the future. “You still have a chance, Wal-Mart. This is your chance to turn things around and withdraw,” said Lisa Miller, one of the founding members of Pittsfield Community First. The local State Representative added her voice to those asking Wal-Mart to reassess its project. In addition to other concerns, the Choctaw Nation of Indians told the Planning Commission that a historic Potawatomi Indian site existed several hundred yards from the proposed Wal-Mart location, and that Native American artifacts or even remains might exist on the site. The Choctaws insisted that an archaeological survey be conducted, and warned that federal law might prevent building the store without at least consulting with local Native American tribes. A spokesman for Wal-Mart told the newspaper that his company would be willing to discuss safety concerns with neighbors. “We are willing to talk with them and work through those issues,” the spokesman said. But Miller from the citizens group said that Wal-Mart may have “won the battle, but they have lost the war.” Referring to their anti Wal-Mart community petition, she added, “They’ve got 6,500 people who don’t what them here. They’ve definitely divided the community.”
Now it falls into the citizen’s lap to take their case to court, and turn a battle that has been in play since June, 2002, into yet another series of legal delays. Wal-Mart may have budgeted for a six month review process in Pittsfield, but instead they are getting something that could end up 9 times longer in duration. Wal-Mart hopes to open up a superstore next September in Saginaw, Michigan, but it looks like the store in Pittsfield isn’t going to start construction any time soon. The founders of Pittsfield Community First have also taken their efforts to the national level, founding Moms Vs. Wal-Mart, soliciting other groups across the country who are fighting to keep Wal-Mart from locating near schools. For further information on that effort, search Newsflash by “Moms.” For earlier stories on Pittsfield, search by the town’s name.