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Acme Votes Tuesday on Big-Box Timeout

Referendum latest round in township’s new development strategy

July 31, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


On August 2 Acme Township voters go to the polls to decide whether to freeze all applications for big-box store construction for nine months.

ACME TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Al Norman, who lives in western Massachusetts and has spent a decade helping citizens contend with the consequences of sprawling development, tallies 280 communities across the country that have defeated enormous, windowless, so called “big box” retail stores — or convinced them to significantly change their design.

This fast-growing rural township northeast of Traverse City is contending to be the 281st.

On August 2 voters here will go to the polls to decide whether to freeze all applications for, and township approvals of, big-box store construction for nine months. Backers of the moratorium say it is intended to give the township’s newly elected board time to study the general economic and environmental effect of big-box stores, as well as alternative designs that would enable large stores to better fit into a traditional town center, as called for in the township’s master plan. The vote, according to residents on both sides of the issue, is expected to be close.

The clash over big-box construction in Acme Township is the fourth in this rapidly developing region along the northeastern coast of Lake Michigan since the mid-1990s, when Wal-Mart defeated a vigorous citizen campaign and built a large store in Bear Creek Township, just outside Petoskey, about 55 miles north of here.

In every case, the battles have been pitched. Last year, Charlevoix business owners and residents blocked a Wal-Mart just outside their coastal city, and this year enacted new zoning rules that restrict how large a big-box store can be. Another conflict also surfaced in Bear Creek in 2004, when developers convinced Emmet County commissioners, after a largely secret negotiation, to overturn a citizen vote and allow construction of a second big-box store there.

“Yes” Side Seeks Time To Grow Smart
Underlying the Acme referendum, just as in the previous battles over big-box stores, is a fundamental clash in ideology, attitudes, and expectations about what this part of Michigan is and should be.

Supporting the moratorium are citizens and local elected leaders wary of the economic dislocation, increased traffic, rising municipal costs, and environmental harm that they say such stores would bring to this community. The Acme Citizens For Responsible Growth, the principal organization supporting the nine-month timeout on big-box development, asserts that the moratorium does not prohibit economic development. Rather, it represents an opportunity for a township of nearly 4,500 people — almost triple the number of residents that lived here in 1970 — to “really think through the best way to grow.”

Paul Brink, the group’s treasurer, urged his neighbors to vote “yes” on August 2. If the moratorium prevails, said Mr. Brink, he was anxious “to work with the developers and form a town center that fits into the master plan.”

Property Rights Drives “Vote No” Group
On the other side, urging a “no” vote, is the newly formed Acme Taxpayers for Responsible Government, an alliance of large landowners, former township officials, and residents. The group said it is motivated by private property rights, the opportunity to shop closer to home, jobs, and the tax revenue a big-box store could generate.

Ronald Reinhold, one of the group’s leaders, claimed in an interview that those supporting the moratorium are simply trying to prevent any development in the township, an assertion that Acme Citizens For Responsible Growth vigorously disputes. Mr. Reinhold also said his group was motivated in part by what it saw as the township board’s reluctance to respond to what he contended was a majority of residents, who want big-box stores in their community.

But Bill Kurtz, the township supervisor who was elected last year along with six others on a platform to manage Acme’s swift growth, disputed this point as well. Mr. Kurtz also challenges claims that big-box development would help the township government’s bottom line. He noted during a public meeting on July 19 that a new big-box store would generate less than $5,000 annually in property tax revenue for the township, which is far below the added police, fire, rescue, and municipal costs that such installations generate. 

Though the Acme referendum is, at the most basic level, the latest test of the popularity of big-box stores in northwest Michigan, the Midwest’s fastest-growing region, the give and take also is more than that. It reflects the growing momentum for, and rising opposition to, an emerging Smart Growth economic development strategy in Michigan and more than 30 other states.

Taming the size and location of big-box stores reflects the Smart Growth movement’s commitment to designing buildings that fit into communities instead of overwhelming them. Big-box opponents have become so successful in recent years that major investment research companies are warning their clients to be cautious in buying the stocks of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other big-box retailers. Bernstein Investment Research and Management, a respected market research firm, recently noted in one of its reports that grassroots campaigns to block the opening of new big-box stores have increased 60 percent since 2000, and that the number of successful campaigns has increased 20 percent annually since 2003.

Acme Wants a Heart
Acme township residents are no strangers to the work of overseeing big-box retailers and securing a new pattern of development that better fits their rural, agrarian and forested geography. Since the late 1990s the township has planned for a “town center,” which, according the community’s master plan, means a traditional northern Michigan downtown modeled after any of a dozen within close proximity.

“The heart of a town center is a downtown core area that feels and functions like a Main Street,” according to the Acme Community Master Plan.

In 2003, though, downstate developers proposed a 2.4-million square foot shopping center, hotel, and housing complex on the town center site — a suburban “lifestyle center” with some high-end stores and a giant grocery-goods-and-garden store developed by Meijer, a retail chain based in Grand Rapids. In October 2004, members of the outgoing town board — all of whom had been defeated the previous August by a reform-minded slate headed by Mr. Kurtz — approved the shopping center in a lame duck session.

Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, a resident’s group, filed a lawsuit contending that the approval was illegal. Early last month Grand Traverse County Circuit Court Judge Philip E. Rodgers, Jr. agreed and nullified the permit approved by the lame duck board.

The vote on August 2 on the nine-month moratorium is the only issue on the ballot, said Mr. Kurtz, who urged residents to vote yes. He said voter turnout is essential and called on “people to head out to the polls.”



August 3, 2005
Acme Voters, By a Whisker, Turn Down Big-Box Moratorium

ACME TOWNSHIP - Township voters overturned a nine-month zoning moratorium on big-box development stores by a razor-thin margin of seven votes, clearing the way for a new Meijer store in Acme. The temporary time-out went down 907-900 as more than half of the township's registered voters turned out despite broiling heat in the region's highest-profile election day issue. The ban affected commercial and retail projects of 50,000 square feet and up.  A recount is being considered by the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, the group that supported the moratorium. "We're discussing it," CCAT member Paul Brink said."

John Latella, a student at the University of Chicago, is a Jeff Metcalf Fellow reporting and writing on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk this summer. Reach him at john@mlui.org

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