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Lessons Learned From Fighting A Mega Mall

Wal-Mart bullies its way into Petoskey

December 1, 1997 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A few years ago an out of town developer announced plans to construct a 372,000 square foot mega mall, anchored by a Wal-Mart, in a residential district on the outskirts of Petoskey. The development would have more retail space than exists in all of downtown. In fact, the local real estate market already was saturated with 150,000 square feet of vacant commercial space.

Petoskey is a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. It is famed for its handcrafted architecture, which was assembled more than 100 years ago with timbers hauled from the surrounding hills by horse-drawn sleighs. Outside the town, prime agricultural lands support a thriving farm industry. For many residents, the prospect of a mega mall compromising the distinctive character of the community was too much to take.

Shortly after the developer's arrival, a broad-based, well-organized, and well-funded grassroots civic group named the Urban Sprawl Alliance was organized. USA representatives appeared at all township and county meetings. We met with the media, wrote letters to the editor, paid for newspaper ads, and sent out thousands of action alerts. Generous financial support poured in from all corners of the community, enough to hire a team of lawyers and file suit.

USA's message: The mall wasn't needed. It would disfigure the countryside and contribute to sprawl. And it violated the township zoning ordinance.

In the end, despite a deep community resolve, USA did not prevail. The mega mall is going up on a once rural hillside. Here are some hard-won lessons that help explain why this happened:

1). Sprawl Addiction. In Michigan, 10 acres of agricultural land are converted to urban use every hour of every day. This intense level of urbanization has been with us for years. But it cannot continue for even another generation without serious consequences to the farm economy and the environment, according to a recent state study. Nevertheless, local leaders and many citizens display allegiance to this type of growth as though it were a deity.

2). The Lure of Mass Merchandising. Our susceptibility to the influence of national advertisers should not be underestimated. Americans are besieged with thousands of commercial messages every day. The central theme is constantly reinforced: Happiness is derived from high volume shopping and immediate self- indulgence. Community groups face an enormous challenge to contend with the big money advertising campaigns that fuel this desire.

3). Message Framing. USA never was able to frame the debate as a land use planning issue. Instead, it became a question of whether there was a need for more shopping prospects. The radio station asked listeners if they wanted a Wal-Mart. Newspaper headlines appeared under a brilliant pink Wal-Mart banner. People asked why we opposed Wal-Mart. They didn't ask why we opposed a mega mall in a residential district.

So we lost. Were the volunteer hours worthwhile? Were the financial donations warranted? Was the time away from family justified?

If we measure success by this one battle, then it was a waste of time and money. If, on the other hand, success is measured by cultivating enduring friendships among others interested in preserving a place worthy of our affection, then this was a good beginning.

Defeat, though, is not softened by knowing that part of our endangered history will now be tucked away in the developer's bank account. Some of the rest will be whisked to Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas. How can we preserve the soul of cherished places if saving a nickel on a new plastic lawn chair is now at the heart of the American spirit?u

John Rohe is an attorney and new Institute member who lives in Petoskey.

Governor Urged to Veto Urban Sprawl Bill

When farmers, environmentalists, and local governments teamed up last year to curb sprawl by reforming Michigan's land use laws, there were high hopes that the alliance would persuade lawmakers in Lansing. But the reform effort was heavily opposed by the home-building and real estate industries, which, perceiving it as an economic threat, lobbied successfully to re-write the bill.

At issue is a proposal to change the Subdivision Control Act, originally approved in 1967, which is blamed by land use experts for poorly designed subdivisions and low-density residential sprawl.

Now the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Townships Association, the Michigan Association of Counties, and the Michigan Environmental Council are urging Governor Engler to veto the re-written version of the bill, which was passed at 4 a.m. just before the close of the 1996 legislature. They say the new bill could actually accelerate the pace of sprawl.

"It becomes a free-for-all on the landscape of Michigan with no consideration of where the dollars come from to pay for (streets and services) as we expand outward," said Bill Rustem, a member of the Governor's Farmland Preservation Task Force. "What we ended up with was not even a step sideways. It was a step backwards."

If Governor Engler does not issue a veto, the new law would go into effect in March.

To learn more, contact the Michigan Environmental Council, 115 W. Allegan, Suite 10 B, Lansing, MI. 48933. 517-487-9539. Or contact the Michigan Land Use Institute at P.O. Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616; Tel. 616-882-4723; mlui@traverse.com.


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