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Charlevoix Big-Box Battle: Part Two

Referendum part of spreading tussle between community character and large-scale retail

November 5, 2005 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Many downtown Charlevoix business people hope that their neighbors in adjacent Charlevoix Township approve a limit on the size of big-box stores.

CHARLEVOIX TOWNSHIP—A year after the world’s largest company cancelled its plans to build a supercenter in this Up North township, citizens will vote on Tuesday, November 8, on whether or not to limit the size of future retail development in their community.

Proponents say that reining in big box development would help to preserve the region’s small town character and protect local businesses. Opponents claim that such restrictions violate property rights.

Charlevoix Township residents will cast their votes in the shadow of last year’s controversial debate over building a 155,800 sq. ft. Wal-Mart superstore here, on a wooded 24-acre parcel just across the border from the City of Charlevoix. Wal-Mart’s unsuccessful attempt to set up shop served as a wake-up call for township citizens and officials who realized that their zoning ordinance wasn’t strong enough to turn away the next big box that might come knocking at their door.

But when the township government banned big-box stores larger than 90,000 sq. ft., property rights activists in the area responded by successfully petitioning for a referendum on the limit. A “Yes” vote on the Nov. 8 initiative would keep the new limit in place.

Charlevoix Township’s ongoing struggle over whether or not to allow big chain stores within its boundaries is emblematic of the debates in towns and cities across the country. People from Vermont to California are so concerned about big-box retailers’ effects on local businesses, wages, downtowns, and community character that they are pressuring officials to enact zoning ordinances that keep huge retail outlets from sprouting up. In some instances, the big-box chains drop their proposal entirely; in others it offers to work with the community to find a more acceptable store size and design. And sometimes the local government, fearful of well-funded lawsuits, folds and lets the company build its original proposal.

‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’
Marell Staffel owns Charlevoix Camera in downtown Charlevoix; unlike most big-box store managers, Ms. Staffel is on a first-name basis with most of her customers. She worries that if township voters overturn the big-box size limit, the jumbo retailers will eventually ruin what generations of local families have cherished: The social connections and community feeling of her small town.

“Look, this is a place where families and businesses have been established for generations,” she said. “These families choose to live here and stay here because of what Charelvoix is—a small town where everybody knows your name.”

Ms. Staffel said that her business has already been hurt by the Wal-Mart in Petoskey, less than 20 miles to the north. She said that her neighbors at family-owned Oleson’s Grocery store and John Cross Fisheries, where locals have bought their groceries and seafood for decades, are concerned, too.

A recent report by Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio-based global management consulting and market research firm, indicates that such fears may be well founded. The report said that, over the next five years, two supermarkets would close their doors for every Wal-Mart Supercenter that opens—a loss of 2,000 stores. Statistics like those, along with strong community opposition to Wal-Mart, are what prompted Charlevoix Township officials to change their zoning laws and limit the size of big-box stores.

“When Wal-Mart showed up we had a new zoning ordinance, a pretty good one too, the only problem was that it didn’t restrict building size,” said Nancy Rajewski, a township trustee and chair of the township planning commission.

“Once Wal-Mart left,” Ms. Rajewski said, “we immediately began working on our master plan and at that time we decided that maybe we should do something about the size and design of our buildings. We wanted to keep the township’s small-town atmosphere with tree-lined streets and all.”

Eventually, the township’s planning commission voted 3-2, and the township board voted 5-0, to restrict stores to 90,000 sq. ft.—somewhat larger than the 75,000 sq. ft. K-Mart already in the township, but a lot smaller than the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. Though many citizens supported the township planning commission and board’s decision, a group of residents, led by a land owner interested in selling to Wal-Mart, protested what they said was a violation of property rights and successfully petitioned for a voter referendum on the new ordinance.

Trying to Set New Limits
Charlevoix Township citizens are optimistic that the big-box ordinance will carry the day in Tuesday’s referendum. Bob Hoffman, a resident of Charlevoix and founder of This Is Our Town, the non-profit group that formed in 2003 to stop the Wal-Mart supercenter, thinks that popular opinion is on the side of local character and judicious growth.

“I think we have overwhelming support for this big-box ordinance,” said Mr. Hoffman, whose group is currently working to stop a 150,000 sq. ft. Wal-Mart in Frankenmuth, Mich. “We feel confident that the voters of Charlevoix Township will support a 90,000 sq. ft. size restriction.”

Just how well similar ordinances are doing across the country is difficult to assess. Over the past few years, people have begun to speak out against stores that, they say, are just too big for their communities. Good zoning ordinances, they find, can be powerful tools, but passing them can be challenging.

For example, while the City of Charlevoix, just next door to Charlevoix Township, passed an ordinance banning individual retail stores larger than 45,000 sq. ft., results in other communities are mixed. Last March, in Philadelphia, the late Councilman David Cohen proposed a ban on building stores larger than 90,000 sq. ft. that dedicate more than 10 percent of their space to food, cosmetics, soaps, over-the-counter drugs, toiletries, and other non-taxable items, but the ban did not pass.

Big-box opponents are encouraged, however, by the fact that the debate over the stores is making it into the state policy arena. Lawmakers in New Jersey, Vermont, California, Oregon, Maryland, and other states have introduced laws that would limit the size of individual stores.

A Better Design for Big Stores
Sometimes the fight against big-box stores can take unexpected turns. In Bennington, Vt., for example, an attempt to limit the size of big-box stores turned into an opportunity to work with Wal-Mart to change the company’s store design. The quaint southern Vermont town of 9,200 people has struggled with the issue since the company announced in summer 2004 that it wanted to build a 150,000 sq. ft. supercenter.

The Select Board in Bennington passed an ordinance limiting big-box stores to 75,000 square feet in one part of town, and to 50,000 sq. ft. in the rest. Shortly afterwards, Jonathan Levy, a local developer with an interest in building a Wal-Mart, gathered enough petition signatures to force a voter referendum on Bennington’s new ordinance. The ordinance was repealed following the referendum, which was held in April 2005. 

But, surprisingly, the vote prompted Wal-Mart and Mr. Levy, who works for Redstone, a development company in Burlington, to submit a new proposal that some say looks a lot better. The building would be two stories tall, greatly reducing the footprint of the 112,000 sq. ft. project, and feature an uneven roofline and earth tones. The result, according to a Wal-Mart spokesman, is unusual for the company.

“It’s unique in that Bennington has certain requirements in law,” Philip Serghini, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told Vermont’s Rutland Herald. “The biggest difference is between the old stores and the newer designs. The old stores were simple designs but the newer ones are more aesthetic and have some really cool designs in different places.”

The Bennington Wal-Mart won’t just be easier on the eyes—Wal-Mart officials think it might also be good for the bottom line. Agreeing to build stores that fit into local communities means that more towns and cities will accept Wal-Mart without a costly and time-consuming legal battle. Wal-Mart’s newfound attention to citizen concerns, aesthetics, and urban design represents a major change in attitude among big-box retailers.

That may lend some hope to a group of citizens and elected officials in Acme Township, Mich., who are trying to rein in big-box developments in their community. They want to persuade Meijer, a large, Michigan-based, big-box retailer, to embrace a more innovative design, just as Wal-Mart did in Bennington. They would like Meijer to drop its proposal for building a one-level, 232,000-square-feet store and instead build a two-story outlet with a parking deck, and locate the facility in Acme’s proposed town center.

Looks Aren’t Everything
While new, innovative designs like the one Wal-Mart is considering for Bennington represent significant progress to big-box opponents, they are quick to add that looks aren’t everything. Such opponents are even more concerned about the economic affect of large retailers on small, local businesses.

 “If a 75,000 sq. ft., 2-story Wal-Mart that looks nice was proposed I think you’d see some support here in Charlevoix,” said Mr. Hoffman. “But again, it depends on the impact it has on this town. Each individual request needs to be looked in terms of its impact on the local economy.”

Stacey Mitchell, Senior Researcher for the Washington, DC-based Institute for Local Self Reliance, agrees. Even if the design and size are right, she says, it’s essential to consider the economic impact.

“It’s critical that communities look at multiple issues at once,” Ms. Mitchell said. “There are a number of communities that focus on design, and there are a number that focus on size. What we say is that you can’t just deal with one or the other—design or size. You need to consider all factors such as community and economic impact.”

In fact, anything over 25,000 square feet should be required to go under economic review, she argues. Often communities go forward without any kind of analysis, and without knowing what impacts the new store will have on the local economy and community.

Ms. Mitchell points to Northampton, Mass., as an example of a community that has done a great job of weighing the size, design, community and economic impact of retailers. In May 2002, the Northampton City Council enacted ordinances prohibiting retail stores larger than 90,000 square feet. Developers who propose stores larger than 20,000 square feet must either construct pedestrian-friendly, two-story buildings contiguous to the street or pay a $5 per sq. ft. mitigation fee. The fee will be used to fund economic development activities designed to offset the impact of retail sprawl on downtown businesses.

Fear of Filing
Big-box opponents also face the challenge of small-scale, under-funded township governments unwilling to risk the litigation that so often erupts when communities restrict big-box development. In Bedford Township, Mich., for example, the township passed an ordinance in 2002 limiting the maximum size of big-box stores to 70,000 sq. ft.; shortly after, the township turned down a proposal for a 170,000-sq. ft. Meijer store.

“The big-box ordinance originally started out as a simple ordinance to improve the architectural appearance of our commercial buildings,” said Dennis Jenkins, a planning coordinator for Bedford Township. “The size limit was added because township officials really felt strongly that we needed to control the bulk of our commercial buildings.”

But legal fears forced Bedford Township to revise its ordinance and replace the language about size restrictions with language that limits the maximum area of a parcel that can be covered by buildings to 25%.

“We revised the entire ordinance and eliminated any reference to allowable square footage,” said Mr. Jenkins.  “One of the reasons we eliminated the specific size limitation was that we didn’t feel that it could be defended in court.”



November 9, 2005

Voters Approve Regulating Size of Big-Box Stores

CHARLEVOIX TOWNSHIP -- Voters here, by a margin of 340-215, approved a township ordinance that gives local government the authority to limit the size of big-box stores to 90,000 sq. ft. The vote affirmed public support for a measure that gives officials the means to oversee the scale and scope of large new buildings in rural and fast-growing Charlevoix Township. The referendum results, which were widely watched throughout northern Michigan, are part of a growing national movement to resist construction of big-box retail buildings, which are viewed as threats to local economies and architecturally out of place.

Rob Wooley is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at rob@mlui.org.

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