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2009-12-20
Cave Creek, AZ. Town Rezoning Makes Homeowners Into Prisoners of Wal-Mart

On November 4, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had bought its way into Cave Creek, Arizona. A ballot question the day before gave Wal-Mart 76% of the votes in tiny Cave Creek. Voters approved two measures on the ballot to allow rezoning of land from residential to commercial, paving the way for a 128,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Wal-Mart purchased the election just as it purchases any other product. Cave Creek was for sale, and Wal-Mart came up with at least $185,000 to change the town's zoning. Wal-Mart flooded Cave Creek with money, creating an "astro-roots" group, and funding it fully out of Bentonville, Arkansas. In a Wal-Mart democracy, the side with the most money wins. Just days before the election, Wal-Mart had outspent its opponents by a margin of 15 to 1. Wal-Mart spent roughly $36 per resident in Cave Creek. On September 20, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the giant retailer was opening up its corporate wallet to try to 'buy' the vote. The company-owned group, the "Friends of Cave Creek," served as the local pass-through for Wal-Mart's lavish spending during the run-up to the election. Cave Creek already has 10 Wal-Marts within 20 miles, half of which are superstores. There are two giant superstores just 12 and 13 miles away in Phoenix. The town of Cave Creek had a 2007 population of 5,120 -- about one-tenth of what it takes to keep a Wal-Mart supercenter alive. Opposition to this project formed quickly. Residents charged that the superstore would make traffic congestion at the busy intersection even worse, and take away from the town's rural character. The site is also located close to three schools, and the local school district asked Wal-Mart to hold deliveries to the store during high pedestrian traffic hours -- something Wal-Mart was unwilling to do. The retailer had to get the zoning on its 20 acre property changed from residential to commercial. Wal-Mart convinced local officials that their supercenter would generate between 300 and 350 jobs. At 128,000 s.f., the project is somewhat smaller than the average footprint of a superstore. "We have supercenters that are 100,000 s.f.," a Wal-Mart spokesman said, "and we have supercenters that are 220,000 s.f." Cave Creek's Town Council voted on June 15th to rezone the land. This project kicked up dust since Wal-Mart first tried to get the town's General Plan amended in 2007. That proposal was later withdrawn by Wal-Mart as their growth plans changed. Then, in 2008, Wal-Mart bought the 20 acre property for a reported $8 million. Residents opposed to the project openly asked why Wal-Mart was trying to rezone residential land, which was clearly not meant for commercial use, when there were parcels nearby already commercially zoned. "This type of rezoning is so anti Cave Creek values," Councilwoman Grace Meeth told The Republic. "What's the big deal about leasing land when there is commercially zoned land (nearby)?" Shortly after the Town Council voted to rezone, a citizen's group announced it would appeal the rezoning. A group called PRIZE (Protect Residential Integrity Zoning and Environment) organized a citizen's referendum to overturn the Council decision to change the town's General Plan to support the Wal-Mart. PRIZE gathered sufficient signatures to place the referendum on the November 3rd ballot. Now, the new Wal-Mart will be only 159 feet from homes. PRIZE did not have access to the corporate money that Wal-Mart provided. According to one PRIZE member, "This is the largest retailer in the world. They can throw as much money as they want at it that we can't." The Wal-Mart front group claimed that Wal-Mart's total funding of the group just showed their interest in Cave Creek. "The financial support provided to Friends of Cave Creek by Wal-Mart is further testament of their commitment to be a contributing member of this community," the treasurer for Friends of Cave Creek told the newspaper. This week, about a month and a half after the election, Wal-Mart is moving forward with its plans. The Arizona Republic says the Planning and Zoning Commission will vote on the specific site plan on January 14, 2010, and the final vote would go to the Town Council several weeks after that. Wal-Mart is now telling the media that they have spoken with unhappy neighbors and have found ways to 'help conceal' the store's massive 559 space parking lot. "That was all a part of what came out in discussions with residents," the Wal-Mart spokesman said. It turns out the retailer hopes to 'conceal' the parking lot with plants and new vegetation. But this will do little to blunt the enormous impact that homeowners will feel from the project once it opens, with its loading dock located just west of the residences. The fact remains, homes and superstores don't mix, and are incompatible neighbors. People living near the superstore are prisoners now -- because any attempt to sell their homes now must reveal the enormous commercial project slated for Carefree Highway. As one Wal-Mart neighbor once told Sprawl-Busters, "Any one who's loving Wal-Mart, hasn't lived with Wal-Mart."

What you can do: The Mayor of Cave Creek, Vincent Francia, believes this superstore will bring his small community an extra $2 to $3 million in sales taxes. The Mayor warned that if the Wal-Mart was not approved by voters, he would have to raise property taxes on the average homeowner by $400 to $500 a year. "Why would you want to do that to your citizens?" Mayor Francia told the Republic. So instead he did it to teh neighbors. The Cave Creek incident was a reminder that citizens groups seeking to put a Wal-Mart issue before the voters need to be prepared for the fact that they will be buried by the money contributed by the big box stores. Still, many citizens group still manage to come out on top. Wal-Mart did phone calls, media buys, and direct mailing. PRIZE could not compete financially with Wal-Mart, and the short-sightedness of local officials. Wal-Mart has lost ballot campaigns in the past -- even when they spent big -- but the game does not take place on a level playing field. Corporations should not be allowed to spend unlimited sums on such campaigns, but sometimes corporations have more rights than citizens. Residents should still keep the pressure on local officials to shrink this store so that it is compatible with nearby residentially zoned properties. Readers should email the town's Planning Commission members at mcarsia@cavecreek.org with the following message: "Dear Members of the Planning Commission, A 128,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter is much too intense a commercial use near residential property off Carefree Highway. In considering their site plan in January, the Planning Commission should 1) reduce the scale of this project to that of superstores Wal-Mart is now building -- like the 78,000 s.f. superstore proposed in Walton County, Florida 2) ban overnight hours and truck deliveries overnight at this site. If Wal-Mart wants to rezone residential land to meet its needs, it should have to live by residential rules: no 24/7 hours, and a smaller footprint. The homeowners near this store are going to lose value in their properties. The town should give these homeowners a generous property tax abatement when they file for one -- since the town dramatically changed the rules after these families had already purchased their homes. Now, they are prisoners of Wal-Mart."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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