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In Acme, a Win for Big Boxes

But across the nation, opposition to sprawling retail deepens

August 18, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


In Acme Township, voters overturned a nine-month moratorium that would have delayed the approval and construction of a Meijer store while trustees updated their community’s zoning laws.

In a whisker-close election earlier this month, Acme Township voters rejected a temporary moratorium on big-box store construction in their community. The referendum, another chapter in a long struggle over sprawling development in one of northwest Lower Michigan’s most scenic areas, lost by just seven votes, 907 to 900. The vote, which overturned a waiting period installed by township officials in order to reconcile Acme’s zoning ordinances with its master plan, revealed that the rural community is deeply split over how it should grow.

The referendum was hardly the last word on efforts by some Acme citizens to retain their community’s rural flavor by controlling big-box development and concentrating residential and commercial growth in a long-envisioned traditional town center. It is also part of a much larger struggle that is taking root across Michigan and the country.

Anti-sprawl citizens groups like Acme Citizens for Responsible Growth, the group that tried to convince their neighbors to allow township trustees more time to better regulate big-box stores, are active from California to Florida. Some groups are succeeding in either keeping big-box companies out of their communities or forcing them to redesign their huge outlets to better fit into them, while some other groups are failing in that effort. But Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Meijer, and other companies whose multi-acre stores and national marketing clout so often crush smaller local business now face such widespread opposition that at least one national investors advice publication is urging those interested in investing in them to proceed cautiously. 

One Vote, Two Interpretations
ACRG members expressed disappointment at their narrow loss, but vowed to work with township officials and residents to ensure that any big box built in Acme gains acceptance in the sharply divided township. ACRG’s pro-moratorium campaign stressed that the group did not oppose big boxes, but did want large national retailers to modify their store designs to fit the township’s master plan, which calls for building a town center resembling nearby villages like Suttons Bay.

But the group failed to convince enough voters.  Statements made by Acme Taxpayers for Responsible Government, a citizens group formed to oppose the moratorium, claimed that ACRG was dead-set against big box stores in general and, in particular, a Meijer store on property that company owns in Acme. ACRG members strongly denied that was true. So determining exactly what the referendum’s results meant are difficult.

Denny Rohn, a leader of the ACRG, the group that supported the moratorium, said after the vote,  “There were some mistruths from the other side that frightened people. I think the township is split on the Meijer issue.” 

But ATRG’s spokesman Ronald Reinhold had a different view. 

“The majority does want a superstore-like structure,” said Mr. Reinhold in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.  Mr. Reinhold emphasized, however, that he did recognize how much the issue had split the town apart: “We made an offer to work with the board to resolve differences,” he claimed, “but that offer has not been reciprocated to this point.”

Adding heat to the debate over the referendum’s meaning is the fact that the current trustees, who instituted the moratorium that triggered the referendum, were elected by comfortable margins on platforms that strongly supported correctly implementing Acme’s master plan. That guiding document for future residential and commercial development discourages typical big-box design and was written in an open public process and approved by the township’s then-trustees.

Michigan’s Mixed Record
Several other Michigan communities also held big-box referendums recently; like the Acme vote, their outcomes are also sparking different interpretations. Voters in Fabius Township, near Three Rivers, approved by a seemingly resounding two-to-one margin a zoning change to allow a proposed Wal-Mart outlet along the area’s main highway. But some members of the Fabius Township Citizens Coalition, which campaigned against the proposal in the small St. Joseph County community, say there is more to that victory than just those numbers. 

“They bought this election,” said Rebecca Shank, referring to Wal-Mart’s active involvement in the campaign, “They have a way, simply because of their unlimited resources, to dominate media and influence communications. All we have is good will and hopefully some good sense to communicate our issues.”

But Ms. Shank said she and her group remain determined to make sure the proposed Wal-Mart’s design follows all of the township’s zoning ordinances and vision for the future.

“Our issue was land use,” she added. “We wanted to protect open space and farmland preservation. We will keep on top of the site plan reviews. And we are relieved that the township has hired an outside consultant who will make recommendations in regard to things like the site plan and water issues and pedestrian access.”

And, three months ago, citizens working to curb sprawl in Portsmouth Township, near Bay City, also lost a referendum vote. Friends of Portsmouth Township, a citizens group, successfully petitioned for a May 3 vote on the township board’s plan to rezone more than 30 acres of farmland to allow construction of a 180,000 sq.-ft. Wal-Mart. The Friends’ position lost, 884 to 621. Dr. Mark Stewart, the head of the Portsmouth group, said after the vote that the election would have been much closer if the Friends were not battling such a powerful opponent.

“[Wal-Mart] had three professional PR people and they out-marketed us,” Dr. Stewart told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. And sprawlbusters.com, a Web site published by Al Norman, a nationally known anti-sprawl and anti-Wal-Mart activist, quoted a Wal-Mart release indicating that the company was “humbled” by the election’s closeness. 

But, as in Acme, the big-box issue in Portsmouth remains unsettled. After the election, Dr. Stewart’s group filed suit to halt the store’s construction. The group contends that, because the review failed to consider the store’s effect on traffic congestion, it was inadequate.

While big-box opponents in Acme, Portsmouth and Fabius consider their next moves, they might take a lesson from Charlevoix, a small city just north of Acme, where the campaign to block superstores of any type is succeeding.

Last year, Charlevoix township residents, many as members of the grassroots group This Is Our Town, raised such a furor over Wal-Mart’s plans to build a 155,800 sq.-ft. store on 24 acres just across the city border that the company withdrew its proposal. Then the City of Charlevoix and Charlevoix Township enacted zoning restrictions on the size of retail outlets.

Bob Hoffman, the leader of This Is Our Town, said that his group was so successful because it decided to take on Wal-Mart directly and unapologetically.

“We went with a shotgun approach,” he said. “We felt that if we put up enough roadblocks, then they would realize that it wasn’t worth it to come to Charlevoix. We went after everything. We felt that in no way could a Wal-Mart help Charlevoix.”

Taking Stock
Despite differing outcomes around Michigan, the national campaign to better manage big-box stores — and the sprawl they both encourage and thrive on — has significant momentum.

Bernstein Research Call, a newsletter for stock investors published by Alliance Capital Management, recently studied community resistance to big box proposals. In a lengthy analysis, dated April 25, 2005 and headlined “Not in My Backyard — An Analysis of Community Opposition to U.S. Big Box Retail,” Bernstein reported that in 2004, 35 communities blocked big-box retail stores, 60 percent more than in 2000. The report predicted a steady rise in such successes and said that, if the present trend continues, in 90 communities will reject big boxes in 2009; over the current decade, it said, the total could reach 453.

“Objections to large retailers are many,” Bernstein said, “with the core concerns revolving around the belief that big-box players negatively impact local businesses and the environment and result in costly infrastructure investments and inefficient land development.”

The report says that, while unions concerned about the low wages most big-box stores pay often lead big-box battles, environmentalists and small business owners are also “resistance points.” The report also said “big-box retailers may face increased difficulty expanding into their most sought-after markets.”

The Road Ahead
Northwest Lower Michigan, where Acme is located, undoubtedly qualifies as a “most sought-after market” because it is one of the Midwest’s fastest-growing regions, attracting many new, relatively well-off residents. Denny Rohn, a member of ACRG, said that citizens intent on better controlling the wave of development headed toward their rural communities ultimately must depend on their neighbors.

“It’s really important to go to the meetings and keep people involved,” Ms. Rohn said. “It’s time-consuming and stressful, but that’s how the system works and that’s what you have to do.” 

She also said that, whenever the opposition passes off false information as legitimate fact, citizens who truly understand how big-box sprawl harms communities, the environment, and local businesses must debunk those claims and continually remind people that poorly planned development reduces, rather than helps, their quality of life. 

“Part of the process is keeping people informed,” she said. “The democratic process will prevail fairly if the information is shared fairly.”

Meanwhile, three hundred miles south of Acme, two more new groups are just beginning their battles for control of their communities’ future. In suburban Ann Arbor, residents of Pittsfield Township are organizing to stop a Wal-Mart that has already gained preliminary approval for an up-to 219,000 sq. ft. store. East of Pittsfield, members of Citizens for Orderly Growth, in Oakland County’s Independence Township, are campaigning for what may be a sign of things to come: A small hike in township property taxes that would fund a township legal defense fund for big-box litigation.

Like other groups before them, these two new ones add more momentum to a rapidly growing, grassroots movement that will help determine just how attractive, walkable, prosperous, and well-designed hundreds of small towns, rural townships, and urbanized areas will be.

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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