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2011-06-16
Menifee, CA. Wal-Mart Spends Big, Wins Big in Ballot Rezoning Vote

The voters of Menifee, California have spoken. But what did they say? Wal-Mart won a ballot vote on June 7th in this city, submitting its own zoning change that was the length of a small book. No doubt few voters had any idea what the zoning details were, but they understood they would get a bigger Wal-Mart if they voted Yes. With the help of a huge advertising budget funded by Wal-Mart, the retailer got what it wanted, and did an amazing end run around local officials and the normal zoning process.

On May 30, 2011, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had spent a reported $260,000 to win a ballot question in the city of Menifee, California. The giant corporation already has 9 stores within 25 miles of Menifee, including a superstore just 10 miles away in Hemet. But Wal-Mart wrote a 67 page zoning change that it wanted voters to approve, and proceeded to spend a small fortune to influence the voters.

Rather than wait for the city council to vote on the project, Wal-Mart withdrew its plans and instead submitted them as a ballot initiative. "This is the most expedient process for us to get a new store built," a Wal-Mart PR manager said.

To create the appearance of grassroot interest, Wal-Mart created a "citizen's" group called Menifee Consumers for Choice -- a common name for astro-roots groups created by Wal-Mart. The company sent out full color mailers to Menifee voters, and hired legal consultants to write their Byzantine zoning language. The special election was like Wal-Mart running for office, after having paid to put its project on the ballot. Under state law, zoning measures cannot be voted in for one specific company, so Measure C on the ballot rezoned the land for many commercial uses, including unlimited scale retail stores.

Last October, the Menifee Planning Commission approved Wal-Mart's application for a 205,000 s.f. superstore, but the case was appealed to the Menifee city council. Perhaps sensing that the city council vote might not go in its favor, Wal-Mart came up with a plan to short-circuit the entire process.

Bypassing a city council vote, Wal-Mart hired a signature gathering firm for $58,000, and filed enough names of voters to put the issue to a special election. The company paid for 8,100 signatures to be gathered, or about $7 per voter.

This is the third time in recent months that Wal-Mart has pressured cities in California by threatening a special election. In Milpitas and Kerman, California, Wal-Mart used this same tactic, knowing that special elections in California are expensive, and cash-strapped cities are reluctant to spend large sums of tax dollars to hold a special election.

In Milpitas, the cost of a special election for Wal-Mart was estimated at $436,000. The city of Milpitas couldn't afford such an election, so they caved-in to Wal-Mart's pressure and approved the project. Wal-Mart was clearly hoping the elected officials in Menifee would do the same thing.

In Menifee, the voters had to pay $113,000 for Wal-Mart's election. One city councilor asked Wal-Mart to pay for the cost of the special election, since the election was something the corporation had initiated on its own. "That is not something we will cover," a Wal-Mart spokesman responded.

Wal-Mart's strategy was clearly to make the city council approve their rezoning without having to go through the major expense of a special election. During a hearing last February, Wal-Mart's senior manager of public affairs told the city council members they could skip the cost of a special election. "A 30-day study or an election are simply an unnecessary cost to the city of Menifee and further delays completion of the project. We urge you to adopt the initiative tonight and bring the benefits of Wal-Mart to your city."

The following month, the city council voted 3-2 to take the matter to a special election. Some city councilors were not convinced that this project would really result in 300 'new' jobs as Wal-Mart had boasted.

Because California law allows voters to mail their ballots in, the county Registrar of Voters told the Press Enterprise that 6,314, or 43% of the mail-in votes had been cast by the end of May. In some elections, the mail-in voters have a big impact on the final outcome, and often votes have been cast before all the facts about a ballot question have been brought to light. A high mail-in turnout would likely benefit Wal-Mart, since the retailer has been sending mailings targeted to those voters.

When the votes were tallied on June 7th, "Measure C" to create the Wal-Mart zoning was adopted by a vote of 7,834 for the change, to 2,363 against. The retailer had bought itself a 77% approval rate. Almost one in four voters said No, which is a pretty high negative for a retail superstore.

The proposed Wal-Mart will be located at the corner of Scott and Haun Roads. It will include a 205,000 s.f. Wal-Mart Supercenter in a shopping center format that will also include gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses.

What you can do: The question that was on the ballot was as follows: "Measure C: Shall the ordinance proposing adoption of a specific plan for commercial development of approximately 30 acres of undeveloped property located near the northwesterly portion of the interstate 215 interchange with Scott Road, be adopted?" No messy details, no lengthy explanation.

Since voters tend to vote to benefit their own interests, and not for the 'larger good' of the community, it can be expected that the reasons why some people vote for Wal-Mart will be very self-centered.

One example was quoted by The Californian newspaper last February. The newspaper quoted one shopper from Menifee as giving her rationale for supporting Wal-Mart. "My reason is a little more personal," said the shopper. "I can't buy a goldfish for my kid at Target, so I'd like to see a Wal-Mart in this town." Now voters can get all the goldfish they can fit in their bowls.

Readers are urged to email Menifee Mayor Wallace Edgerton at: wedgerton@cityofmenifee.us with the following message:

"Dear Mayor Edgerton,

I hope that the city of Menafee learned some lessons from the June 7th vote -- and I don't mean that powerful corporations can buy the electoral process.

First, the city should change is ordinance to require that zoning changes be scheduled for the next regularly-scheduled city election. End the process of creating expensive special elections that suit developers only.

Second, consider requiring that zoning changes obtain a two-thirds supermajority of votes to pass in any election.
Now that Wal-Mart has demonstrated that a corporation can write it's own ticket into town -- Menifee no longer has any zoning, because every developer will just go right to the voters. "

Third, take a look at your land use plan to limit commercial development locations, and adopt a size cap similaar to the Turlock, California ordinance that caps the size of stores. Wal-Mart cannot beat such an ordinance in court.

If you do nothing, more big boxes will roll right past the City Council without even tipping their hat."










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

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