Tacoma, WA Wal-Mart Uses Legal Threat To Keep Project Alive
On August 3, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had given up on locating a superstore in Fircrest, Washington, which has been described as a wealthy suburb of Tacoma. Four years later, Wal-Mart is locked in an ugly legal battle in the heart of Tacoma itself, over a controversial 154,000 s.f. supertstore. Despite the clear intent of city officials to have a moratorium on big box stores, a Wal-Mart developer has used the threat of lawsuit to bully its way into the city.
Wal-Mart has 7 stores within 15 miles of Tacoma, including a superstore in Federal Way, Washington just 9 miles away, a superstore in Spanaway roughly 12 miles away, and two superstores in Puyallup. So area residents have no problem finding cheap Chinese goods without a Wal-Mart right in their city. While Tacoma itself has kept the superstores out -- city officials found themselves in a sudden race against Wal-Mart to keep the big box sidelined.
According to the News Tribune, at the end of August, when rumors were flying that a developer planned to submit a zoning application for a Wal-Mart on South 23rd Street and Union Avenue, the City Council voted unanimously to impose a six month moratorium on stores over 65,000 s.f . The developer pulled a bait and swith on the city, because their proposal began life as a hospital proposal, but late in the game the hospital plans were pulled, and a Wal-Mart inserted instead.
The moratorium ordinance was passed with an emergency preamble to make it take effect immediately. But according to the city charter, the ordinance could not take effect until it was published in the Tacoma Daily Index, which did not take place until two days after the Council vote.
The developer used that time to hurriedly submit plans for the superstore one day before the public notifiation took place. The developer then claimed it was "grandfathered" in and protected from the new moratorium.
The city responded by saying the application was complete -- but they noted that because the application involved a "boundary line adjustment" on the property, the project could not proceed until that adjustment was dealt with. As a result, the new moratorium was in effect for Wal-Mart.
The developer then appealed that interpretation to the city's hearing examiner and threatened the city with a $5 million damages claim. The threat worked. The City Council reconvened this past week and on a 6-3 vote, accepted the Wal-Mart application and allowed it to move forward and be reviewed. The Council included in its re-vote language that specifically exempts "boundary line adjustment" issues from the moratorium. So the temporary moratorium remains in effect thorugh the end of February -- but the threat of a lawsuit gave Wal-Mart a green light to have its project reviewed.
Some city councilors argued that even though Wal-Mart was being allowed to proceed, that Tacoma residents would still have their opportunity to express their opinions during the public hearing process. The project will have to meet Washington State's Environmental Policy Act -- but that law clearly has enough room in it to allow a superstore to be built, since Tacoma is already surrounded by big box superstores.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told the News Tribune that the original moratorium and the amended moratorium were both going to create "a better code that will help us perpeare for that future." But the Wal-Mart horse is already out of the barn.
This week, Sprawl-Busters received an email from the Central Neighborhood Council which said: "We are trying to fight a super Wal-Mart in Tacoma. The Wal-Mart is allowed by our code but in our mixed use center. The SEPA was completed under mixed use medical facility with minor public comment. A Determination of Mitigated Non-Significance was granted. The hospital pulled out and Wal-Mart moved in. They are proposing to just complete an addendum on the SEPA, which has no public comment. We are proposing to appeal the SEPA and hopefully require an EIS. We are also getting the community to protest the Wal-Mart. We are having a rally in front of the proposed Wal-Mart development tomorrow."
What you can do: Readers are urged to email Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland at: Marilyn.Strickland@cityoftacoma.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Strickland,
As a city of Neighborhood Councils, Tacoma has distinguished itself as a community that cares about sustainable development. A Wal-Mart superstore is not sustainable. It is out of scale with the surrounding community, and it is not a form of economic development. Welcoming Wal-Mart to Tacoma is like welcoming a cannibal to dinner. It is your small business sector that will be consumed by this wasteful project.
During the upcoming hearings, it is important for city leaders to be on record supporting a much smaller footprint for this store -- or none at all. Use your existing zoning code to cut this project down to size.
It is shameful that the developer and Wal-Mart could not honor the intent of the moratorium. By your unanimous vote, you made it clear that you wanted a six month moratorium on big boxes. But Wal-Mart does not care what city leaders want, and during the hearings, you should return the favor.
What kind of corporation would seek to force its way into the city, knowing that the City Council had just passed an ordinance that sought to discourage buildings half the side?
It is important that the Council not leave this battle to your constituents to fight. It is your obligation as elected leaders to tell developers that you don't want a superstore, and that legal threats are not the way to win minds and hearts in Tacoma."