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2008-08-09
Portsmouth, MI. Wal-Mart Pulls Out After Four Year Battle

After four long years of a fighting Wal-Mart, citizens in Portsmouth, Michigan(population 3,500) are looking out over acres of corn instead of a supercenter. On March 24, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that Michigan Department of Agriculture had reversed its earlier position, and allowed a landowner in Portsmouth to squirm out of an agricultural preservation deal early, in order to make millions off a sale of his land to Wal-Mart. This project has been bitterly opposed in Portsmouth since 2004. A citizen group narrowly lost a rezoning vote in May of 2005. Portsmouth voters approved a rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter, but the vote spread between the two sides of the issue was very small. The vote was 884 in favor, to 621 opposed. The project subsequently got stalled at the state level, because the land Wal-Mart wanted was under an Act 116 agreement, which gave the landowner a tax break for preserving farmland. But the state's program manager for farmland preservation, ruled that the 27-acre parcel of land along M-15 could be released from Public Act 116. Property owner Chris Ratajczak got the green light to sell his property to Wal-Mart. The state planned to require Ratajczak to repay all tax credits he had received on the property for the last seven years, plus 6 percent interest, but he can simply deduct this from his multi-million sales price to Wal-Mart, and come out a very rich man. In 2005, state officials refused to release the property from P.A. 116, saying it could lead to urban sprawl and that there were more reasonable sites in the area for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The anti-Wal-Mart group, the Friends of Portsmouth Township, filed an administrative appeal against the decision. "We're obviously disappointed in the decision and quite puzzled since the state denied the exact same request a year ago and nothing's changed since then," said Scott Howard, attorney for Friends of Portsmouth Township. The Friends of Portsmouth filed suit against the project in 2005. The Bay City Times reports this week that Wal-Mart has suddenly abandoned their Portsmouth project. "We are no longer exercising the option to buy the property on M-15 and build a Wal-Mart there," said Wal-Mar's senior manager of public affairs. Wal-Mart said its decision was based on "research of the area's customer base and a nationwide strategy to scale back building plans," according to the newspaper. Wal-Mart was careful to point out that the virulent opposition to the project by some residents was not a factor in the company's action. One project opponent told the Times, "I don't feel I won. I feel the people of Portsmouth Township and all the small-business owners won. I feel very good about this." Dr. Mark Stewart, the first person who contacted Sprawl-Busters in opposition to this store, and who invited Sprawl-Busters to travel to Portsmouth to speak, told the newspaper: "This is great news. It means we're going to save farmland and it means we're not going to lose local jobs and not going to duplicate services with another Wal-Mart down the road." Portsmouth Supervisor Robert Pawlak who pushed this project since Day One, wrote out a prepared statement for the media, which read: "The news that Wal-Mart has decided not to pursue construction in Portsmouth Township is very disappointing. Portsmouth Township officials have always maintained the issue was not 'about Wal-Mart' as the developer, but about development - in general - by a major company in an area that has been designated for commercial growth for over 30 years." Pawlak said more than 60% of township residents approved rezoning the property (it was only 59% of those who voted), and the court had ruled against the citizen's group. Wal-Mart has a store already in nearby Bangor Township. The company told the newspaper that one reason they made the decision public this week is that the owner Chris Ratajczak has a deadline to keep his land in the farmland preservation program. "It was coming out in the next week or two," Wal-Mart said, "and we wanted to pull out so it would allow them to keep it in (Public Act) 116. They had that option." The Friends of Portsmouth Township had appealed the state's decision to allow the land to leave the farmland program early, and a hearing on that case was scheduled for August 13th. If the Friends won that case, the land would not have been available for Wal-Mart. The retailer may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of losing the farmland case, and so pulled the plug before the hearing. But local opponents don't care exactly why Wal-Mart is gone -- just that they are done. "Thank God Wal-Mart is gone," one opponent said. "I'm looking out my window right now at 116 acres of corn."

What you can do: The citizens ultimately won this battle. They may well have won their appeal on the early withdrawal from the preservation program, which would have killed the deal. This way, Wal-Mart got to withdraw, rather than being kicked out. This landowner voluntarily entered into a contract with the state to be paid to keep his agricultural land out of development. The state initially was firm on the subject of not releasing the property owner from that agreement, which he entered on his own. The state has an important public purpose in preserving the use of land for agricultural uses and preventing sprawl. Converting it for use as a supercenter made no sense from a public need, since this area of Michigan is already saturated with big box stores. State officials were no doubt under pressure from Wal-Mart and the landowner to cave in, which they did. The fact remains that the landowner may be chasing the highest dollar, but that does not mean state officials have to follow. They have an obligation to the citizens of Michigan to run an agricultural preservation program that is not influenced by wealthy developers. It appears that Michigan is for sale to the highest bidder, when public officials reverse course and allow malls to occupy land that was under a preservation contract. If P.A. 116 contracts can be cancelled by the landowners, then the documents are worthless in the first place. Readers are urged to call Portsmouth Township Supervisor Robert Pawlak at (989) 893-5623 with the following message: "Supervisor Pawlak, It is very possible that the Friends group would have won their farmland appeal on August 13th, and tied up Mr. Ratajczak's land for years to come. Wal-Mart's withdrawal prevents that ugly confrontation. Now that the dust has settled, and the superstore is gone, Portsmouth should take steps to make sure this kind of win/lose land use case does not happen again. If you placed a cap on the size of retail stores of 75,000 s.f., it would help ease the confrontation results that come from proposals like Wal-Mart's. Your rezoning vote would have defeated Wal-Mart by only 132 switched votes. Clearly there are lots of people in the township who don't favor this kind of sprawl. Protect your farmland from sprawl, and put a limit on the size of big box stores before this whole debate happens again."










 
 
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