On May 22, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had been rejected twice in the small town of Zionsville, Indiana (pop. 12,500). This is a community that boasts of its “fabled brick street” and shops “from upscale and uniquely fashionable to rare and vintage antiques.” The tourist appeal of Zionsville is a downtown with “fine restaurants and quaint cafes” and its “peaceful, tree-lined streets (which) are a picture perfect reminder of a bygone era, of a quiet time still cherished by Zionsville residents.” Just twenty minutes from downtown Indianapolis, Zionsville maintains “its distinctive country village charm and quality of life.” Into that “quiet time” came a Wal-Mart proposal. On November 23, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Zionsville, Indiana Planning Commission had dealt Wal-Mart a setback. The Commission voted not to rezone 12 acres of land on Route 421 for a supercenter. The developer, Heritage RDG, was seeking a “general business” rezoning, but said they would still build a Wal-Mart supercenter on the remaining land they controlled. “It makes it more difficult, but it doesn’t affect our amended proposal,” a lawyer for the developer told the Indianapolis Star. To make the project fit on properly zoned land, the Wal-Mart had to be scaled back from 204,000 s.f. to 176,000 s.f. “Our hope is that the (Plan) Commission would stay the course,” said Richard Carr, president of the Zionsville Merchants Association. “If you look around, you can see that the retail environment is very adequate to meet our needs.” Local residents told Sprawl-Busters, “Our planning commission has denied the rezoning, which still leaves the developer with a large commercially zoned lot. But now it’s not big enough to build any outlots. We now have the toughest battle ahead of us, making sure they still don’t build on the remaining land! Several members of our town council have been vocal about not wanting this development and are now simply looking for a reason to turn Wal-Mart away without a lengthy and expensive legal battle. Our opposition troops have begun to look to other towns who have beat Wal-Mart even when the zoning is right. We’re riding high on our first little victory, but everyone knows that Wal-Mart won’t back down this easily.” In December of 2005, the Zionsville town council voted unanimously to support their Planning Commission, and reject Wal-Mart’s proposal for rezoning. The developer insisted again that it could build the superstore entirely on land that was already zoned for B-2 business. “As we’ve tried to express throughout the process, the parcel that was zoned B-2 permits the Wal-Mart,” said Heritage RDG, the developer. “The denial of the rezone at this stage does not impact the review of the Wal-Mart proposal.” Heritage had planned to build an 85,000s.f. center on the other 12 acres of land that was industrial and B-3 commercial. “I think we will have to decide what we want to do with our next step,” the developer added. “We’ll look at (our) legal and development options. I am exceedingly disappointed, not so much with the council as I am with the plan commission. I think they made it about Wal-Mart … the project affected had nothing to do with Wal-Mart.” After their first rejection, Wal-Mart proceeded on its own as the developer, and approached the town with a “smaller” store. Heritage also threatened a lawsuit. The neighbors told the Times Sentinel newspaper that when they bought their homes, they were told the land proposed for a big box would be used for an office park or light industrial use. At one point, the neighbors petitioned Zionsville to annex their land out of Boone County, Indiana, and into Zionsville, to protect themselves from this kind of huge big box development. When Wal-Mart submitted its plans to the town for a “reduced” store, the town Planning Commission voted in May, 2006 that it did not have jurisdiction over the land. The commission said roughly one-third of Wal-Mart’s land, was in Hamilton County. Wal-Mart then sued Zionsville in June, 2006. On March 28, 2008 — almost two and half years since the project was first rejected — a Hamilton County, Indiana Superior Court issued a decision rejecting Zionsville’s claim that it did not have jurisdiction over the project, and the court sent the case back to the Zionsville Plan Commission for review. The Judge said the town’s ordinance gave the plan commission authority over “plats or parts of plats” inside the town. Judge Steven Nation, however, gave the town one important victory. He denied Wal-Mart’s attempt to get the court to order the commission to approve the development. On May 19, 2008, a little more than two months after the court remanded the case to the town, the city’s Planning Commission took a second vote on Wal-Mart’s plans — now for a 185,000 s.f. store — and rejected it for a second time. “I would not be surprised if Wal-Mart would file an appeal of tonight’s decision,” said Attorney Patrick Hess. Wal-Mart told Channel 6 News said the company would be exploring its options, and that the tide of opposition had turned. “The economy such as we’re experiencing now — Wal-Mart has had a surge in customers,” a company spokesman said. “It’s a rare obstacle that comes up,” the spokesman added, saying his company was surprised by the rejection.” “Usually we have a warm reception.” On June 21, 2008, as expected, Wal-Mart filed a second lawsuit against the Zionsville Planning Commission. Rather than respect the town’s clear sentiment that they do not want a superstore at that location, Wal-Mart hopes to use the courts to bulldoze its way past local officials. But as 2008 ends, the Indianapolis Star reports that Wal-Mart will try to settle its controversial proposal in Zionsville by going through mediation. A lawyer for Wal-Mart told the newspaper that the company would prefer to go the mediation route. He said that the mediation process could begin at any time. The special judge who will preside over the mediation process is Steve Nation, the same judge who last March ruled against Zionsville. Wal-Mart will hope that town officials, fearing ongoing legal expenses, will cave in and allow the company to build its store.
Wal-Mart has grasped the mediation route many times as a shortcut to their objective. In Neptune Beach, Florida, for example, the Special Magistrate process led to the construction of a superstore. But in Brooksville, Florida it led nowhere. Clearly, Wal-Mart has nothing to lose by engaging in mediation. They will offer no significant concessions during this process, but could intimidate Zionsville officials to give up the fight and just settle the case. The Zionsville Plan Commission unanimously rejected Wal-Mart’s plan based on traffic, drainage, aesthetic and crime. In April, 2006 — before the town voted they had no jurisdiction over the Wal-Mart land, but after Wal-Mart had submitted its plans for a smaller store — Zionsville passed a ‘big box’ size cap, which limits the size of a store to 60,000 s.f. Wal-Mart’s proposal came in at 185,000 s.f. — but does the big box law apply to Wal-Mart — since the company applied for a permit before the ordinance was passed? That question cannot be answered until another question is resolved: When the court ruled that Wal-Mart’s application was remanded back to the town to review, is their application now a “new” project that falls under the April, 2006 ordinance? Wal-Mart’s journey to Zionsville is led to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting. The absurdity of this case is that the Zionsville trade area is saturated with Wal-Marts already. There are a total of 15 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Zionsville, including 11 superstores. There are two Wal-Mart supercenters in Indianapolis, one of which is less than 4 miles from this site in Zionsville. This project is the kind of wasteful, redundant store that Wal-Mart shareholders must find discomforting. The company says it is trying to stop cannibalizing its own stores, yet in Zionsville they are ignoring the obvious local sentiment to limit the size of stores, forcing local taxpayers to spend money on legal fees to fight Wal-Mart. This is the strategic mistake that Wal-Mart continues to make, tripping over its own stores to build another superstore in a community with less than 13,000 people. Readers are urged to email Matt Price, the President of the Zionsville town Council at [email protected], with this message: “Dear President Price, I would encourage Zionsville to keep fighting Wal-Mart’s bullying tactics, and support your Planning Commission’s 2nd vote against Wal-Mart. Do not allow Wal-Mart to use mediation to get their store. Your town is surrounded by 15 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles. The land they want is not slated in your Comprehensive Plan for a superstore. Wal-Mart should be required to shrink its store down to your size cap. A suburban-style superstore is completely incompatible with the ‘distinctive country village charm and quality of life’ that Zionsville is working to protect. There is no such thing as a village superstore, and I urge you to keep fighting for your ‘picture perfect’ vision of Zionsville.” Mediation is just another tool they use to present you with one last chance to avoid litigation. But they will offer you nothing, and if they don’t get their store as they planned it — the mediation will be a bridge to nowhere.”