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2010-01-12
The Dalles, OR. City Council Votes To OK Wal-Mart A Second Time

Fool me once -- shame on you. Fool me twice -- shame on me. The City Council in The Dalles, Oregon didn't understand the first Wal-Mart they approved -- but when an Appeal Board sent the project back for a second vote -- the City Council was fooled a second time as well. On December 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had launched an assault on the city of The Dalles, Oregon. Thirteen months later, the City Council in The Dalles has given Wal-Mart a green light, over the protests of its own citizens. The Dalles (pronounced "Dayulz") is located in the north-central part of the state on the Columbia River. The Dalles describes itself as one of Oregon's most historical cities and is known as "the town at the end of the Oregon Trail." Wal-Mart's growth trail led it to The Dalles, and it's not hard to understand why. The city boasts that it offers "the pleasure of rural living" while being only 80 miles from big city amenities in Portland. The City has a retail area of about 70,000 persons in Washington and Oregon. In early October of 2008, Wal-Mart began the permitting process to construct a 150,000 s.f. superstore. The developer fronting the effort is PACLAND, which has offices in Washington state, Oregon, California and Arizona. Almost everywhere PACLAND goes with its big box projects, controversy follows. Sprawl-Busters has documented PACLAND fights in Red Bluff, California; Cornelius and Gresham, Oregon; Cedar Hills, Utah; and Chelan, Washington. PACLAND is one of the most prolific Wal-Mart developers on the West Coast. The closest Wal-Mart to The Dalles is in Hood River, Oregon, where Wal-Mart tried to replace its discount store with a supercenter, only to be rejected in a lengthy court battle. City officials said the Wal-Mart proposal is a commercial project in a commercial zone, and that shopping centers are an allowed use in commercial-light industrial zones. PACLAND's proposal is the largest store in The Dalles. PACLAND's lawyer said the opposition raised against the superstore "is the same thing we've heard all over the state." The attorney said that not liking Wal-Mart is not a criteria in a land use case. But many residents spoke against the plan, including an environmental group, the Columbia Riverkeepers, which said the Planning Commission did not have enough information on traffic and environmental impacts to make a decision. A citizen's group, Citizens for Responsible Development (CFRD), also formed to fight the project, and hired two attorneys to represent them. Opponents submitted information demonstrating that the Wal-Mart site plan was incompatible with the city's Comprehensive Plan Economic Development Goals on diversity of the economic base of the community, encouraging the growth of existing employers and attracting new employers to The Dalles. The adverse impacts from this project on other businesses was raised as an issue, charging that Wal-Mart would cause other local businesses to fail, leading to empty storefronts and "urban blight." Rather than try to address these charges, PACLAND's attorney said compliance with the comprehensive plan was not a criteria that the planning commission could consider. On January 9, 2009, the city's Planning Commission approved the creation of a new subdivision for the project. The Citizens for Responsible Development promptly appealed that decision to The Dalles City Council. According to The Chronicle, on February 9, 2009, the citizen's appeal was unanimously rejected by the city council. The next step in the local process was the public hearing on the project's site plan, which came before the City Council on February 23, 2009. Attorney Kenneth Helm, representing the citizen's group, objected to the subdivision because of its potential impact on traffic, wetlands, pollution into Chenowith Creek, and economic impacts on the community. In response, Wal-Mart argued that many of these objections had not been raised earlier at the Planning Commission hearing, and therefore should not be allowed during the appeal to the City Council. Six citizens testified against the project, only one person spoke in favor of the subdivision. After more than three hours of discussion, the City Council ended the hearing, and voted unanimously in support of the Wal-Mart project. The Dalles City Council voted to deny the citizen's appeal against the city's Planning Commission approved for the Wal-Mart site plan. The council took more than 5 hours of testimony in front of a packed room with 135 residents. The city's attorney advised the Council not to allow residents to testify on the economic impacts of Wal-Mart. Residents had been told that economic impacts could only be discussed during the site plan phase of the project. Even the city council was confused. "There isn't a person at this front table who didn't anticipate economic issues being part of the appeal on the site plan," said one City Councilor. "I thought that was a given. But it's not there. It wasn't on us to bring it back." The city's lawyer said that opponents had failed to list economic impacts in their appeal of the site plan. Residents were allowed to talk about economic issues -- but only after the vote had been taken. The Council approved the site plan with some conditions -- but none of them major concerns to Wal-Mart. The Citizens for Responsible Development were forced to file an appeal of the city's decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) in Salem, Oregon. On October 15, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that activists in The Dalles had won a battle. The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) ordered The Dalles City Council to reconsider Wal-Mart's proposal to build a SuperCenter at the Chenoweth Interchange, specifically urging further analysis of traffic impacts. Wal-Mart estimates the Supercenter would generate an additional 8,755 vehicle trips per day. The citizen's appeal asked LUBA to reconsider the case on ground that traffic at the Chenoweth Interchange was not properly analyzed, among other concerns -- including significant wetlands on the site near Chenoweth Creek and the Columbia River. "Opponents of the project welcome LUBA's decision as an opportunity to ensure that the traffic and wetland issues are fully considered before allowing the giant retailer to build," said a spokesman for the CFRD. A new public hearing before the City Council was required. CFRD was allowed to submit new evidence. Residents said they found approximately 40 wetlands were left out of Wal-Mart's site plan application. Their wetland study was done after City Council approved Wal-Mart's application. The group said they were "outraged" when they learned of the oversight, but the case was already under review by LUBA and new evidence was not allowed at that time. "The City Council needs to consider the unreasonable traffic levels and safety problems that this project creates," explained a CFRD spokesperson. "There is evidence in the record that will show the traffic flow at Chenoweth Interchange will fail, even with signal light coordination. Even the Oregon Department of Transportation had problems with the project. On January 11, 2010, The Dalles City Council, like a trained seal, repeated its unanimous vote in favor of the huge Wal-Mart project. Several councilors complimented members of the CFRD for taking an active interest in the community and participating in the process. "If there hadn't been any opposition, I would have been disappointed," said Mayor Nikki Lesich. But not everyone on the Council was thrilled with the outcome. Councilor Dan Spatz said that the city previously had weighed a city ordinance banning "big box" stores. "It may be time to reconsider that," he said. "I'm looking forward to discussing during the comprehensive plan review whether goals in the plan are only 'aspirational.'" The city now must mail a formal Notice of Decision to PACLAND and the CFRD. Citizens have 21 days to appeal the case back to the Land Use Board of Appeals. The CFRD issued a statement about the Council decision. "We are already involved in the review of the land use development ordinance and comprehensive plan presently occurring at the planning commission level. The process that the Wal-Mart project went through clearly shows the need for better tools for the planning commission and the city council to properly assess development applications in our community. At December's planning commission meeting we submitted proposals for language on economic impact analysis (state of Maine has this as state law, 2007) and to strengthen the definition and protection of our environmental resources. We hope that with the clearer language and the proper tools, assessments of future development will be more inclusive of all the possible impacts to our community."

What you can do: In their 2006 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, The Dalles envisions itself as a "regional retail center." The city has added a Fred Meyer store, a Home Depot, and a Kmart store -- none of them as big as the proposed Wal-Mart. The document seeks "to build upon The Dalles existing strength in the retail sector." But the plan also calls for using under-developed existing commercial land, and converting some vacant industrial land for retail purposes. The plan calls for the use of "mixed residential/commercial areas, or Neighborhood Centers." One of the major goals of the Plan is to "encourage the growth of existing employers, and attract new employers to The Dalles that compliment the existing business community." Another key economic development goal in the plan is to "encourage redevelopment and adaptive reuse of commercial space downtown as an alternative to commercial sprawl." The Dalles is working under a policy of encouraging investment in city's Central Business District, and encouraging the "start up and growth of small to medium-sized businesses providing family wage jobs, and to "plan for appealing streetscapes that encourage personal interaction." The city is at odds with itself as it seeks to strengthen its downtown, while also expanding "highway commercial developments" along its western gateway area. Wal-Mart is largely incompatible with many of the land use policies and goals that the city is pursuing. Readers are urged to contact The Dalles Mayor, Nikki Lesich, at: cityinfo@ci.the-dalles.or.us with the following message: "Dear Mayor Lesich, The City Council has made the same bad vote about the Wal-Mart supercenter twice. The Dalles says it wants to revitalize its central commercial district, to attract environmental tourists, and to find alternatives to commercial sprawl. Yet the proposal submitted by PACLAND for a Wal-Mart nearly three times the size of a football field is just out of scale with the size of your small community. During the 1990s, The Dalles added roughly 1,000 people to its population base, but even adding in the entire population of Wasco County, you still don't need a store this big. Even though this project is located on commercial land, the Planning Commission and the City Council had the right to reject a project because of its adverse impact in areas like existing economic activity, traffic and roads, and the environment. You can ask that a project be reduced in size, and in many communities, developers have respected local desires for smaller projects. The project does not fit The Dalles market. It's a classic example of suburban sprawl, and is largely incompatible with your land use goals. Hood River rejected a Wal-Mart superstore, as have a number of other communities in Oregon. You didn't have to accept a one-size-fits-all mentality. People who think that Oregon is synonymous with Smart Growth should come and take a look at The Dalles. In the wake of this awful decision, now's the time to pass a zoning ordinance putting a cap on the size of retail buildings. It's time to end sprawl at the end of the Oregon Trail."










 
 
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