In 2003, Wal-Mart tried — and failed — to get the courts in Arizona to overturn a “big box” law in Tucson, Arizona. Now they are turning to the voters of Tucson. Sprawl-Busters reported on September 28, 2003, that a judge in the Pima County, Arizona Superior Court had tossed out a lawsuit filed by Wal-Mart against a zoning law in Tucson. Wal-Mart filed the suit against the city’s zoning law, which requires a review process for retail stores greater than 100,000 s.f. in size, and limits the sales of non-taxable items inside the store to 10% of floor space. The law was passed in 1999. Wal-Mart later tried to gather signatures to put the ordinance before the voters. That effort by Wal-Mart fizzled as well. When Wal-Mart took the ordinance to court, it argued that the Tucson law was unconstitutional. But the Judge ruled that cities have a right to enact zoning laws regulating the combination of grocery with retail sales, and such laws help protect the health, safety and welfare of local residents. Wal-Mart said the law was designed to protect smaller groceries from competition, but the judge said that the law allowed the City Council to grant variances, and that existing stores were grandfathered by the law. Now, nearly four years later, Wal-Mart has hired signature gatherers to collect voter names to place the issue of the big box ordinance on the ballot. The retailer told the Tucson Citizen yesterday that its paid collectors have gathered 18,000 signatures on their petition. This almost assures that they have collected the 11,615 necessary registered voters to put the issue before voters in November. The deadline for gathering names is tomorrow. Wal-Mart hired a local consultant, who in turned paid people to go out and get voter names. However, Local 99 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has vowed to take the petition challenge to court. Wal-Mart’s measure may violate Arizona law which prevents initiatives from targeting zoning ordinances, according to an attorney representing the UFCW. The city’s attorney admitted the big box law is a zoning ordinance, but would not predict the city’s response when the petition is presented tomorrow. Wal-Mart boasts that the petition is legal. “We certainly wouldn’t have moved forward if we didn’t think that we were on solid ground,” she said. The union will seek an injunction against the initiative. “The voters do not have the power as a matter of law to pass the initiative that Wal-Mart is circulating,” the union said.
Wal-Mart is calling their petition the “Consumer Choice Initiative” to make voters think that this is about the “freedom to shop,” a popular political term at Wal-Mart. There is, of course, no constitutional “right to shop,” but “choice” appeals to consumers. The reality is that this initiative is “Wal-Mart’s Choice.” Because they have the choice to build a 99,000 s.f. superstore, like any other retailer. It’s their “choice” to use a business model that builds stores larger than Tucson allows. This is not Tucson’s problem — it’s Wal-Mart’s problem. The retailer is telling voters in Tucson that their zoning, and how their city will look, should be determined by a private corporation. Wal-Mart is free to do business in Tucson, by the same rules that govern all their competitors. If anything, the big box ordinance is an “equalizer.” The “choice” to go around Tucson’s laws — and write their own — is entirely Wal-Mart’s. In 2005, Tucson, city leaders fought over whether to give a developer, Eastbourne Investments, a waiver from the big box law. In March, 2007, the city council ignored big box opponents, and granted the waiver in the first real test of the law. Most voters in Tucson have no idea how large supercenters can be. Wal-Mart is buying signatures in Tucson. It seems everything is for sale, to Wal-Mart, even the future of a great city. Readers are urged to call Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and the City Council’s Citizen Comment Line: (520) 791-4700 and urge them to “reject the Wal-Mart initiative, and force the retailer to take them to court — once again. Don’t back down from your big box law.” The city council can be emailed at: [email protected]