One person in Summit County, Utah has just made of the biggest land use mistake in the history of the county. On July 25, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that three County Commissioners would decide the fate of a Wal-Mart expansion project in Park City, Utah. Wal-Mart wants to expand its store in Park City, population just over 8,000, into a Supercenter. The decision falls to the Summit County Commissioners. “I never make up my mind until I go through the public hearing and weigh all of the public comment and evidence,” Commissioner Sally Elliott told the Park City Record newspaper. “Public hearings for me are true opportunities for me to learn, so I never make a decision in advance of a public hearing.” On July 23rd, Sally Elliott voted against the expansion. Wal-Mart wants to expand its store on North Landmark Drive by adding a 43,000 s.f. grocery store. The County Commissioners held their hearing on Wal-Mart’s conditional use request to expand on July 23rd. Wal-Mart had already snowed the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, which voted 4-0 in favor of the expansion. The store currently is 73,000 s.f.. Under the expansion, the store would grow to 115,758 s.f. Commissioner Elliott told The Record that most of the people she’s spoken to don’t want the Wal-Mart to expand. “I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents, and all of the input I’ve gotten is negative,” she said. Summit County Commission Chairman Ken Woolstenhulme tipped his hand even before the public hearing was held. He told the newspaper he will vote for the expansion. “I thought that we were pretty well all on board in making the expansion,” Woolstenhulme said. “We’ve known that this is coming and that this is in the works, and we’ve known all along that this was going to happen.” It turns out that Woolstenhulme sees the Wal-Mart expansion as part of a larger land deal. Wal-Mart gets its grocery story in exchange for helping to rebuild Landmark Drive by selling land to Summit County. “We had to get some property from Wal-Mart in order to do that,” Woolstenhulme explained. The existing Wal-Mart in Park City was built in 1991, when the county had few, if any, zoning restrictions. One member of the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission took the position that if the impacts of the store were addressed, the County Commission had no power to stop the expansion. “We don’t have a choice legally, or we could get sued. It’s Wal-Mart’s position that it isn’t really going to impact traffic,” the Planning Commissioner told the newspaper. “We can’t say ‘no’ to expanding a legal nonconforming use if the applicant has mitigated its impacts, and agrees to conform with the code in every respect but the expansion.” The third County Commissioner, Bob Richer, would not share his opinion before the vote. According to When July 23rd came, the Commissioners decided at their meeting not to vote on the plan at all. They must have been affected by the 25 or so people who came to the hearing and spoke out against the plan. Commissioner Elliott made a motion to deny the expansion — but she couldn’t get either of her two colleagues to second it. Commissioner Richer offered his own motion to delay the vote, which was unanimously adopted. “We haven’t taken fully into account the additional traffic that might be caused by an increase in size by Wal-Mart,” Elliott said. Richer echoed concerns from residents about traffic congestion at Kimball Junction, and asked for more time to review the traffic reports. “Perhaps we should take a week, two weeks, or two months to digest it,” he said. One of the County’s lawyers told the Commissioners that for Wal-Mart to get a conditional use permit it only has to show it can mitigate the impacts of the expansion. His comments were meant to discourage the Commissioners from denying the plan. This project already has already raised traffic concerns at the county’s planning commission, which denied the expansion based on traffic. Advocates for the Wal-Mart say that Summit County has started a widening of the road by Wal-Mart, which will ease the traffic problems when completed. But if the County wants to stop this project, traffic is just one of its tools. On October 29, 2008, the decision was finally made. Commissioner Elliot, as expected, voted against the expansion. But the two other Commissioners voted to allow Wal-Mart to expand by 60%. The Commissioners also allowed Wal-Mart to put up a huge, 74 square foot sign. “I can’t accept the sign,” Elliott told her colleagues. “We don’t need to have a big box with a big sign. One item on which I will not give is the sign code and compliance. That’s my bottom line.” The Wal-Mart sign will be more than twice as large as the county’s zoning code allows. Commissioners Bob Richer and Ken Woolstenhulme voted for the conditional use permit — and the big sign. “This is not a referendum on whether we like or don’t like Wal-Mart. It is a matter of applying our code,” Richer told the audience. In response to criticism from his constituents that Wal-Mart had not been a good neighbor, Richer told them: “What is critical to us is that the landscaping is maintained. We do care.” A Wal-Mart representative admitted that the company had been lax about the store’s appearance over the past several years, but told the Commissioners, “Wal-Mart’s current policies and attitudes toward landscaping are different. “The philosophies have changed significantly in the past two or three years.” Residents continued to warn that traffic at the site would “really get bad,” but Commissioner Elliot said this week that a bus shelter and nearby walkwalks would encourage people not to drive to Wal-Mart. “We want it to be as pedestrian friendly as we can design it,” Elliott explained.
There is not a single Wal-Mart supercenter in America that can be described as ‘pedestrian friendly.’ Very few people walk to a Wal-Mart. It’s an automobile-oriented development. In the end, it was only one person who made the key vote to allow this unnecessary expansion. The attorney for the county recommended giving the developer what he asked for. The mere threat of a lawsuit from developers was enough to cause the risk-averse legal representatives of the county or city to caution their clients not to stand up to companies like Wal-Mart. This is a mistake, because local officials have much more power and control than they imagine. The courts are reluctant to substitute their judgment for that of local officials interpreting their own bylaws — unless the officials have acted in a way that is arbitrary and capricious. In this case, traffic impacts are a serious consideration, and one of the objectives of zoning in many communities is to prevent undue congestion of traffic in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of local residents. Many cities and towns accept the developer’s traffic studies as gospel, never seeking to have an independent traffic engineer perform a peer review. In this case, the County Commissioners are not traffic engineers. They cannot “digest” the technical aspects of the traffic impact statements. The Park Record newspaper recommended that the Commissioners vote No on the Wal-Mart expansion. “It has taken Summit County many years to learn how to say no to big-box developers,” the newspaper editorialized on July 11th. “And that lesson has not been easy.” According to the newspaper, when companies like Kmart and Wal-Mart came to town they wore down local officials “with promises of community amenities if approved or expensive lawsuits if denied.” The Record says one local resident even chained himself to a bulldozer to stop the Kmart. But the store opened anyway, “struggled to survive, and finally closed leaving an empty eyesore.” The Summit County Commission has required retailers like Smith’s and Albertson’s to cut back the size of their projects to create smaller, more neighborhood-friendly stores. “But now they are facing the baddest big box of them all Wal-Mart,” the newspaper said, “and the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission has already caved.” The paper adds: “Sorry guys, allowing Wal-Mart to expand from 72,000 to 115,758 square feet does not represent the will of your constituents. Wal-Mart has a reputation for crushing locally owned businesses, for importing goods of questionable quality, for exploiting employees and generally strong-arming community planning boards. They haven’t done much to counter that image here in Summit County. It would be a shame to reward that kind of behavior with permission to do it on an even bigger scale. This is especially true when giving Wal-Mart a green flag to go into the grocery business could put nearby established groceries out of business.” County Planners say Wal-Mart will spruce up their ‘old’ store if they are allowed to expand. “Gee, what a nice offer,” The Record editporialized. “How about demanding that they take better care of the square feet they have and become better corporate citizens before asking for favors.” Readers are urged to email the 3 County Commissioners at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Commissioners, You worked hard to limit the scale of retail stores at Kimball Junction. Now, by one vote, you have undone all that work. The existing Wal-Mart was already a nonconforming use. You have squeezed companies like Albertson’s to get smaller. You were not required to allow big stores to expand. Your small population base cannot support a supercenter. This store will harm businesses in neighboring towns as well. All that will increase is the crime and the traffic. Now that you have made one of the biggest mistakes in Park City history, it’s time to impose a cap on the size of retail buildings so you don’t have to pit neighbor against neighbor in this controversial big box debate. Act now — before Wal-Mart announces they want to move again.”