Wal-Mart wants to build a 153,000 s.f. superstore in Hamilton, Montana, and so has a lot riding on an effort to overturn a law in Ravalli County that limits the size of superstores to 60,000 s.f. In April, over 1,000 people jammed into the Hamilton Middle School to speak on an ordinance to cap the size of retail stores. One resident summed up the feelings of most in the overflow crowd when he said, “I am not anti-growth, but I didn’t come to the Bitterroot for economic growth – I came here because of the quality of life and Hamilton’s beauty.” After listening to 3 hours of testimony, which ran roughly 10 to 1 in favor of a cap, the County Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the size limit. But Wal-Mart moved ahead to submit a plan to build their store in an area known as the Bitterroot Valley. “I don’t feel the zoning ordinance applies to us,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “We feel vested in the building process.” But apparently not too vested, because according to a story in the Missoulian newspaper, Wal-Mart contributed $41,752.41 to help a group gather signatures to challenge the county’s vote on the November ballot. When local groups come together to fight Wal-Mart, we call it a “grassroots” group. When a giant corporation entirely funds a local group, we call it an “astro roots” group, because its an artificial creation. The “Citizens for Economic Opportunity,” received a huge Wal-Mart check in May, just as the petition drive was getting underway. So Wal-Mart paid to get its issue on the ballot. The leader of the astro roots group told the Missoulian that Wal-Mart’s money was used to pay for several mailings and to hire signature gatherers. “I wouldn’t deny that they donated, but at the same time, this is about free enterprise,” said a spokesman for CEO. “This isn’t about Wal-Mart. It’s about the freedom to do business.” Citizens for Economic Opportunity argues that state law and the state Constitution provide that the county’s emergency resolution on the size cap ordinance is now suspended, pending the November vote. Which is why Wal-Mart has reapplied to try and get “grandfathered” under the old zoning code, with no size cap. The county disagrees, and says that Wal-Mart filed a state building permit back in March to build a 153,000-square-foot store, but later withdrew it. Then the company filed again. The county’s lawyer filed for a Summary Judgement to get the courts to declare that the ordinance has not been suspended. The county says that “Wal-Mart is clearly ‘gaming’ the system and has been actively involved in this process, to try to build a large-scale store in Ravalli County without waiting to determine what the majority of its citizens want.” The county notes that resolutions are not considered “pending” when they are appealed. If the size cap is suspended, it means that 15% of the population can overturn an emergency action by the county commissioners, who are “elected by a majority of voters to protect land and natural resources in Ravalli County. It would also make meaningless the authority, granted by the Legislature, for local governments to pass interim land-use measures in emergency situations.”
The Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition told the newspaper that the amount of funding Wal-Mart pumped into the astro roots group was a “shocking amount” to spend on a petition drive. “That amounts to more than $7 for every signature that CEO gathered, an amount not seen since the days when the Copper Kings were buying elections a century ago.” Now the Retail Kings are doing the same thing. But the Bitterroot Good Neighbors think that local residents will not allows Wal-Mart to buy its way into Hamilton. “I expect that Ravalli County voters will let Wal-Mart know that our votes and our communities are not for sale,” the group said.