Visitors say that Maui, Hawaii is about as close to Paradise as you can get on the planet. That fact has not been lost on big box retailers, who like to buy real estate in Hawaii. Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and the largest of four islands that make up Maui County. This week, the Maui News reports on how big box retailers like Wal-Mart are working over local politicians to make sure a size cap on retail stores never gets enacted. According to the News, “trendy” Target wants to build a store on Maui, but it doesn’t have a specific site in mind. A site is not the corporation’s biggest problem on this little island, however. The trouble in Wailuku, the city which is the seat of Maui County, is that local officials have proposed a ban on big box stores over a certain size limit. According to one County Council member, Target is threatening to pull plans for Maui if the ban passes. “They want to build on Maui, but the bill would probably kill their plans,” said the County Council Member. This cap on size has been rattling around the County Council for at least two years. As proposed, the measure would ban retail buildings larger than 15,000 s.f. on the island of Lanai, 75,000 s.f. in the city of Hana, and 90,000 s.f. everywhere else in the County. Under pressure from developers and big box stores, County Council members have voted to refer the superstore bill back to the county’s Planning Committee, which buys more time for the Council to figure out what to do with the bill. In February, 2009, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to send the bill to the Council, with the understanding that there would be a public hearing before the Council acted on the proposed law. But this week, the superstore bill appeared on the Council’s agenda, without a public hearing. At the Council, it was suggested that the County’s Planning Department neglected to mention that Hana community plan advisers did not want any superstores in their rural town, and wanted a 75,000-square-foot cap throughout Maui. A lawyer working for big box stores also criticized the Planning Department report because it mistakenly claimed that the Maui Planning Commission supported the bill. Two Council members said a public hearing needed to take place to clarify what was going on. At a hearing on the bill on June 5, 2009, 25 people spoke on the plan — all of them against the ban. According to the Maui News, the new Planning Committee Chairman Sol Kaho’ohalahala proposed remanding the bill back to his committee for further discussion and a public hearing. Council members unanimously supported this proposal, and sent the bill backwards to the Planning Commission again. The News says that Wal-Mart has been waging an advertising campaign to kill the superstore ban. The bill was written by the former Chairman of the Council, Riki Hokama. He did so to protect locally-owned businesses on the islands. But critics charged that the ship has already left the harbor in Hawaii, because stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Home Depot already have stores in the Hawaiian islands since the 1990s. There was opposition to each Wal-Mart store, however. As of the end of 2008, Wal-Mart had eight discount stores in Hawaii, and no supercenters.
The Maui News incorrectly stated that no American city or town has gone so far as to prohibit superstores completely. “The courts have struck down all-out bans as unconstitutional,” the newspaper said. This is totally incorrect. The ability to limit the size of buildings of any kind is as legitimate as limiting the height of any building. Wal-Mart has challenged such superstore size caps in court — but it has never prevailed. Wal-Mart has used the ballot box to overturn size caps, but it has never won a case in court to prevent a size limitation. Cities and towns have the statutory authority to write zoning codes, which can include limits on size and height of buildings. Wal-Mart, which is suspected of being the source of this disinformation, also told the News that it has no plans to expand its store in Kahului, but they just wanted the “freedom to do so in the future,” the newspaper said. In fact, Wal-Mart will be looking to convert most, if not all, of its 8 discount stores into supercenters, because the addition of groceries dramatically increases the sales at each location. This spring, Target came to keep Wal-Mart company, and opened two stores in Hawaii on Oahu.One Target is 216,512 s.f., and the Target store at Kapolei is 159,431 s.f. Target has targeted two more sites in Kona and Hilo for new stores as well. One County Council member told the News that he initially supported the ban, but because of the recession, he would support almost any retailer that brought ‘new jobs’ to the islands. The Costco in Kahului is also planning to expand to 160,000 s.f. and add a gas station. “These stores have a certain economy of scale they must consider in order to be successful,” one Council member explained. “If they are going to build, they need a store large enough to fit in all the amenities included in their business model, like an eyeglass store, pharmacy, fast-food restaurant or coffee shop.” In a recent ad in the newspaper, Wal-Mart wrote, “When we hear the County Council is intending to vote on a bill that would unfairly limit where Maui residents can shop, it is disappointing to us. It would ban new stores like Home Depot, Target, Wal-Mart and others.” Wal-Mart has let it be known that it wants to expand its discount stores into supercenters. The existing Wal-Mart in Maui County is already 145,000 s.f. — — large enough to be converted into a superstore without adding a single square foot. One Council member told the Maui News, “I think the communities should be able to judge for themselves what they do or don’t want in their neighborhoods.” He added that it was not the Council’s place “to interfere with America’s free-market system,” the newspaper said. Readers are urged to contact Councilor Sol P. Kaho’ohalahala, Chair of the Planning Committee, at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Chairman Kaho’ohalahala, Wal-Mart intends to convert everyone of its eight discount stores into supercenters, and all of them will be of a scale that is incompatible with Maui County. Maui needs to protect its scenic beauty and character, and not try to imitate the sprawl found in mainland America. Tourists do not want to travel thousands of miles to see the same supercenters they left behind at home. A limit on the size of retail stores is legal, and has been done repeatedly in the U.S. In fact, Wal-Mart has never won a case in an American Court that overturned a size cap on stores. This is because local communities have the right to impose limits on growth, such as building height restrictions. The big box stores are willing to say anything to get you to table this idea. They will threaten to leave, and they will threaten litigation. But all of these threats are just theatrics, because they want to keep making profits in Maui by stealing market share from smaller merchants — and even cannibalizing their own stores if needed. The County Council should pass the size cap, and work on more smart growth principles to prevent Maui County from becoming just another Sprawl County.”