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2003-04-04
Decorah, IA. Wal-Mart Loses 5 Year Battle in Iowa Supreme Court

Wal-Mart has lost a legal battle in a small town in Iowa, but could end up winning the final war. The highest court in Iowa ruled 6-1 this week that city officials in Decorah, Iowa broke the law when they permitted Wal-Mart to build a supercenter in a floodplain along the Upper Iowa River. The court ruling is a major setback for Wal-Mart, which has already completed construction on the building, which local authorities say is around a $20 million structure. Last summer, an Iowa Appeals Court ruled against the city's decision to allow construction, overturning a county district court ruling that initially had supported the city's green light for the project. Nearly two and a half years ago, the Decorah City Council narrowly voted 4-3 to approve Wal-Mart's plan to fill land that was zoned as a flood plain, despite the fact that the city's Board of Adjustment had turned down the request. The Supreme Court decided the case by saying the City Council did not have the authority to allow the filling of the floodplain, that only the Board of Adjustment had that right. " Iowa Code section 414.7 (1999) vests the board of adjustment with the authority for making special exceptions to the terms of an ordinance," the Supreme Court wrote, "and Iowa law does not allow a city council to bypass a board of adjustment. The ordinance relied on by the Council illegally attempts to grant powers to the council that chapter 414 vests in boards of adjustment."
The Board of Adjustment refused to allow the filling to take place because the City's Comprehensive Land Use Plan called for the floodplains to remain as open space. "The city chose to ignore its own plan," explained the plaintiff's lawyer. Regarding Decorah's Comprehensive Plan, the court wrote: "Iowa Code section 414.3 requires ordinances to comply with a city's comprehensive plan. However, Wal-Mart's interpretation of the ordinance in question would grant broad authority to the city council to alter the character of the floodplain without any consideration of the city's comprehensive plan." This seesaw legal battle ended up in the lap of the state's Supreme Court, which agreed with the Appelate Court, and has now sent the case back to the district court, where some kind of compromise is likely to be hammered out, leaving it unlikely that the store will be torn down. "My gut instincts say tear it down and restore the flood plain," one plaintiff told the DesMoines Register.

What you can do: My involvement in Decorah goes back to December of 1998, when I was invited to speak against the Wal-Mart project by local residents. The resolute citizens of Decorah, who at one point took out a national ad in USA Today fighting Wal-Mart, hung in there for 5 years, while their local officials gave away a floodplain for a Wal-Mart supercenter, only a short drive across town from an existing Wal-Mart discount store. By all rights, Wal-Mart should have to tear its store down and learn an important lesson about breaking the law. But the final chapter in this heroic struggle is not yet written. For more background on the Decorah epic, search this database by the name of the town.










 
 
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