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2004-09-29
Saline, MI. City Council Unanimously Opposes Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The City Council in Saline, Michigan voted unanimously last week to oppose a Wal-Mart supercenter. There's just one small problem, a matter of geography. The superstore that Saline doesn't want happens to be one mile outside of the city -- so their voted is considered largely a "symbolic" gesture by Saline's Mayor. Unfortunately, the Wal-Mart plan is slated for neighboring Pittsfield township, and officials there seem to be reluctant supporters of the project. The Saline City Council voted 6-0 to direct its City Manager to send a letter to Pittsfield Township and the Michigan Department of Transportation opposing Wal-Mart's store on Michigan Avenue. Saline City Council member Rick Kuss, who led the effort, told the Ann Arbor News that Wal-Mart's store on 32 acres will have a devastating effect on Saline's downtown, and worsen a bad traffic situation. "We're extremely concerned and disappointed about Wal-Mart on Michigan Avenue," said Kuss. "Downtown is going to change. Store owners are going to have more problems. Typically, when Wal-Mart is moving in small towns, there's a drastic impact on local stores. ... They are ruining our livelihood. When Wal-Mart goes there, you might also see Home Depot. More buildings, more traffic." Kuss told the News that Michigan Avenue traffic without Wal-Mart is "congested and at a tipping point and is not getting any better and is getting worse." A lawyer hired by Wal-Mart responded by saying that the retailer's negative impact on downtowns was just an "unfortunate impression." He noted, "We believe we're a good neighbor in every community we're operating in. The opposition is unfortunate, but we must listen." Despite Saline's objection, the Pittsfield Planning Commission has already given Wal-Mart a conditional use permit. The land is zoned for commercial use, but despite the fact that the project needed conditional use permits, Pittsfield officials acted as if they had absolutely no discretion over the project. The Township's supervisor told the newspaper that the township cannot deny a legitimate request for development under that zoning category. "None of us has rolled out a welcome mat for Wal-Mart," the Supervisor admitted. "This would not have been my choice. But we have no choice." Yet conditional use permit by definition means the approval was not automatic, and reluctant township officials could have denied the conditional use, instead of coming up with the lame "no choice" excuse. The head of the Saline Chamber of Commerce adopted the typical small business association line. "I am concerned about small businesses," the Chamber head said. "I think progress is inevitable. I would hope that Wal-Mart would be a good corporate citizen ... with quality product and quality service." And a local pharmacist in Saline, just shrugged and said, "This definitely will have an effect on the area, but there are a lot other competitions also. You just kind of have to get your own niche." Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell was equally passive. She noted that Saline has "no jurisdictional rights to change (Pittsfield Township's) zoning," and said it would be better for Saline to improve Saline's downtown with "stronger businesses" rather than try to fight Wal-Mart.

What you can do: The zombie's have taken over Pittsfield and Saline. Local officials sound like they walked off the set of Night of the Living Dead. There is always a choice in zoning decisions. The "done deal" syndrome in Pittsfield suggests that anyone who asks for a conditional use permit has to be given one. In such case, why would a permit be called "conditional?" Wal-Mart asked for a drive-through pharmacy and a garden center, neither of which is allowed in the commercial zone without a conditional use permit. If officials had denied the conditional use, it is unlikely Wal-Mart would have proceeded. The township's Clerk told residents that the city "has no grounds to deny the use of land based on the zoning." But this is a narrow interpretation of local zoning powers to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents. A high school is right across the street, and the uses Wal-Mart wanted as part of their application are not automatic "as of right' uses. "We have no good reason to deny this project," one township official said, even as local residents were lining up to speak against the project. Saline officials would do well to turn the screws a little tighter. They understand the negative impact this project will have on their town, and their opposition is better late, than never. As for Wal-Mart's lawyer from Detroit, the "unfortunate impression" that his client devastates small towns is out of the box, and no amount of Wal-Mart spending can put the truth back inside the box.










 
 
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