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2004-02-04
Alameda County, CA. Wal-Mart Sues County Over Zoning Ordinance

Over the past year, Wal-Mart has grown increasingly aggressive in battling back communities that try to enact what I call the "California style" size caps on retail stores. A number of communities in the Golden State are passing ordinances that ban stores over a certain size from having more than a limited percentage of floor space devoted to non-taxable sales -- mostly groceries. Former Governor Gray Davis vetoed a similar statewide measure passed by the General Assembly, but in its stead, several communities have passed such zoning changes in their own communities. This, in turn, draws the wrath of Citizen Wal-Mart, which either sues the community, or takes the matter to a referendum vote. The most recent Wal-Mart counter-offensive is in the county of Alameda, California. The county ordinance bans retailers with stores larger than 100,000 s.f. from devoting more than 10% of their floor area for the sale of groceries. Wal-Mart has complained that such ordinances are "anti-consumer and anti-competition." The Alameda code was passed on January 6th. It was adopted by the county to protect small businesses and control traffic congestion. Although Wal-Mart is not specified in the wording, the giant retailer is taking it personally. "We really believe the consumers in Alameda are being punished by their Board of Supervisors by not allowing them to reap the benefits of stores like Wal-Mart supercenters, which studies have shown can save people up to 30% on their grocery bills," a Wal-Mart spokesperson told the Oakland Tribune. (Wal-Mart forgot to mention the harmful economic impact its stores can produce.) Wal-Mart says the county did not legally enact the zoning change, because they failed to conduct an environmental review, did not property notify the public, and did not seek the county Planning Commission's review. The company also complains that the new zoning law "imposes unusual and unnecessary restrictions on lawful business enterprises." Wal-Mart is also challenging a similar ordinance in Contra Costa County, CA. by going to a referendum there on the March, 2004 ballot. The company also put pressure on Calexico and Ingelwood, California, where both communities dropped their size limit ordinance when Wal-Mart threatened a referendum. Clark County, Nevada also backed off their zoning restriction when Wal-Mart challenged it. In the Alameda case, Wal-Mart said it chose a lawsuit because "they (the county) was so determined to get this passed immediately, we felt a lawsuit was a more appropriate course of action." The Board of Supervisors remain behind their new ordinance, and say they followed the process correctly. "The ordinance really is our way of being proactive in addressing our planning issues, our land use issues and our traffic concerns," Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker told the Tribune. "It's not about Wal-Mart."

What you can do: Towns in California passing this kind of ordinance can clearly expect legal or referendum response from Wal-Mart. But check out the story from Stoughton, Wisconsin, where a simple cap on the size of buildings is not being legally challenged by Wal-Mart. The "California model" ordinance seems easier for Wal-Mart to attack than a dimensional limit on all buildings over a certain size. The inclusion of the grocery square footage is where the company has made their challenge. The Alameda case will be key in the future of such ordinances. For examples of towns that put in place simple size caps, search Newsflash by "caps." See also "Contra Costa."










 
 
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