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2005-10-10
Portsmouth, MI. State Rules Wal-Mart Land Must Remain in Farmland Protection For Three More Years.

A deal is a deal -- but Wal-Mart won't like this one. Last May, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had won a narrow election victory in the township of Portsmouth, Michigan, pop. 3,000. The vote was 884 in favor of rezoning farmland for a Wal-Mart supercenter, versus 621 against the store. If only 132 votes had changed, the rezoning would have been defeated. The vote was a very narrow affirmation of the decision to rezone 31 acres of land made by the township's Board of Supervisors back in December, 2004. A group called the Friends of Portsmouth Township worked off a shoestring budget to try and defeat the world's largest retailer at the ballot box -- and they almost won. One of the group's leaders, Dr. Mark Stewart, was told that it was no use to oppose a done deal. But Stewart and his group stayed on the hunt, taking the township to court, and erecting a large Chinese and Wal-Mart flag on Stewart's property abutting the Wal-Mart parcel. But today came news that lowered Wal-Mart's flag to half-mast. According to the Bay City Times, the Michigan Department of Agriculture has turned down a request from the property owners, Chris and Karla Ratajczak, to release their farmland from Public Act 116, the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act. The Ratajczak's put their land under PA 116, and got a tax break for preserving it -- but now they want to pull out of the preservation deal to preserve their financial profit from a Wal-Mart sale. The landowners agreed to a tax break to take their land out of development through December 1, 2008. Rich Harlow, program manager for the state Agricultural program, ruled that taking the land out of farming would damage surrounding farmland, and that "reasonable and prudent alternatives" were available for constructing a supercenter. The battle is not over yet, however, because the landowners can appeal the decision to Agriculture Department Director Mitch Irwin. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Bay City Times that he was unaware of the letter to the landowners, which has been in the township's hands as well for several weeks. Ironically, the Friends of Portsmouth Township are in court today over their lawsuit against the rezoning vote from last December. The Friends have argued that the township did not take into account the project's impact on surrounding properties. The township Supervisor told the newspaper that officials were disappointed by the state decision -- but they knew about it for weeks and did not tell the media. Supervisor Robert Pawlak suggested that state officials had misled the township about a withdrawal from farmland preservation. "Obviously, (agriculture officials) are doing whatever they are mandated to do. I'm hoping the landowners choose to appeal it," Pawlak told the Bay City Times. "The owner of the farmland is within his right to use his land as he sees fit. That's been our position from the start." Pawlak also started promoting another big box, less than minutes after Wal-Mart's apparent demise. "Even from my first meeting with Dr. Stewart, he said he wouldn't mind if it was a Target store," Pawlak said. "If it's something more amenable to Dr. Stewart, like a Target, that's fine with me. Whether or not it's a Wal-Mart has been an irrelevant issue to the township."

What you can do: So much for brand loyalty. Unfortunately, a Target destroys just as much farmland as a Wal-Mart, and a Target is just as damaging to property and the rural character of this very small town as a Wal-Mart. Changing the logo on the building won't solve the issue of suburban sprawl. For Portsmouth residents addicted to Wal-Mart, there is already an expanded supercenter less than 4 miles up M-15 in Bay City. There is also a largely empty mall for sale or lease in Portsmouth, the Hempton Mall. Farmland does not have to be taken to build a new Wal-Mart, when commercially zoned land already exists. The landowners in this case want to squirm out of their deal to be paid not to develop their land. They can't have it both ways: they made their financial deal, now they need to live with it. If they want to cash out, they can do so in time for Christmas, 2008. Local officials sat on this news, perhaps hoping they could quietly reverse it with some political muscle before the story ever became public. But now that the cow is out of the bag, how you gonna keep Wal-Mart down on the farm? For earlier stories, search Newsflash by "Portsmouth." For local contacts, email info@sprawl-busters.com










 
 
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