Is Wal-Mart big enough to be above the law? Wal-Mart’s effort to put itself on the ballot in Inglewood, California and avoid local zoning rules, has drawn fire from two community groups, who filed suit last week to stop the ballot initiative cold. The petition as submitted by Wal-Mart would allow them to rezone property they want for a store, circumventing entirely city council review. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (laane.org) and the Coalition for a Better Inglewood filed suits in L.A. Superior Court. The suit claims that it’s a violation of state law for the retailer to try to get its zoning project approved by circumventing elected officials and going right to voters. “Even if the voters of Inglewood wish to allow Wal-Mart to develop a Supercenter in Inglewood, they cannot,” said Jan Chatten-Brown, the Coalition groups’ lawyer told the Los Angeles Times. “The remedy for them is to go to the City Council and tell them they want the City Council to process and approve a Wal-Mart development in Inglewood.” Last year Wal-Mart managed to get city officials in Inglewood to withdraw an ordinance that the city had passed that would limit the interior square footage of food sales in a superstore building. To prevent the city from blocking them again, Wal-Mart hired signature gatherers to put an initiative on the ballot that calls for building permits to be issued for their project without public hearings, or environmental impact studies. The initiative will be held at a special election on April 6th. To pass, the initiative only needs a 51% majority of the voters. Once it becomes part of the city’s zoning code, it would require a two-thirds vote to repeal or amend it. At this point, Wal-Mart claims that it wants to build a discount store, not a supercenter, but the site would allow expansion at a later date.
First Wal-Mart intimidates Inglewood officials to back down from their ordinance or face court action, then the company proposes an initiative that short-circuits all zoning in the city. If this Wal-Mart appeal is successful, Inglewood has no zoning. Any developer who doesn’t get what they want, will write their own ticket on the ballot, spend as much money as they need to sway voters, and create ‘ballot-box zoning.’ Wal-Mart has tried this in other communities, like Eureka, California, but lost. The lawsuit against Wal-Mart essentially says that taking zoning cases to initiative renders zoning laws moot. That’s just what developers want. For contacts in this case, go to laane.org.