Whitehall, MI. Wal-Mart Battle Comes Down To Definitions
A battle over definitions is shaping up in Whitehall Township, Michigan, where opponents say a 126,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore is a 'shopping center,' but the developer and the township's zoning administrator say it's a 'retail store.' Whether or not this project gets built could hinge on how this superstore is defined.
This tiny township of 2,700 people clearly has no need for a supserstore, because Wal-Mart already has two superstores within 17 miles.
The Whitehall Township Planning Commission met this week to begin processing the Wal-Mart application for a site plan review, hoping that the issue of a special permit would not arise -- since a special use permit requires more review, and could ultimately be appealed to court if neighbors are unhappy with the Township's decision.
According to mlive.com, Wal-Mart has 30 acres of land that is zoned "business," which allows general retail stores as a permitted use. The Township's Zoning Administrator told planning commissioners several weeks ago that Wal-Mart is a retail store, and not a shopping center, and that only a site plan approval was needed.
But local opponents are challenging that opinion. A group called BOW NOT, which stands for "Back Off Wal-Mart -- Not Our Town," has retained an attorney out of Traverse City, Michigan, named Scott Howard. BOW NOT's attorney argued that Wal-Mart is a "shopping center" under the township ordinance, which is defined as "A group of commercial establishments, planned, developed, owned and managed as one unit, with off-street parking provided on the property."
Attorney Howard said that Wal-Mart has multiple businesses within the proposed store plus three "out lots" for other businesses, so the project is a "group of commercial establishments," and Wal-Mart owns the entire parcel. The plans also has its own off-street parking lot of 505 cars.
The Township's lawyer told BOW NOT that it must prepare a legal argument on the issue of special use vs. site plan approval. The Chair of the Planning Commission will then wait for the township attorney to issue his own legal opinion.
Mlive.com reports that State Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright, D-Muskegon(where 2 nearby Wal-Marts are located) wrote a letter to the township in opposition to the Wal-Mart. She said, however, that if the township vote against the plan, it could trigger a lengthy and expensive legal fight. But the Representative does not seem to grasp that if the township says "yes" to Wal-Mart, BOW NOT has the same appeal rights.
What you can do: Readers are urged to call Whitehall Township Supervisor Chuck Schmitigal at (231) 893-2095 after hours and leave this message on his answering machine:
"Dear Supervisor Schmitigal,
I was surprised to see you publicly supporting a Wal-Mart superstore for your tiny township. You said it would come with a good tax base -- but have you looked at the numbers?
A Wal-Mart entering any trade area expects to do well by capturing most of its sales from existing merchants in the trade area -- which is not that large -- given the fact that shoppers do not travel long distances to buy food -- and their monthly grocery purchases are fairly inelastic, meaning if you add more food stores, that doesn't mean people will buy more bananas.
So Wal-Mart succeeds at the expense of the exisiting merchants, and when you add up the costs of water, sewer, roads, police and fire -- you can actually lose money on a Wal-Mart. Besides, zoning decisions are not made on tax base criteria, they are made on zoning criteria.
A township the size of Whitehall does not need its own superstore. And if your residents are addicted to cheap, Chinese imports, you already have two Wal-Mart supercenters in Muskegon. Better to leave the crime and traffic problems to officials in Muskegon, and keep your quiet community insulated from suburban sprawl.
Remember, you can't buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf -- but once they take it from you -- you can't buy it back at any price.
If it is litigation that scares you, understand that BOW NOT has the same appeal rights that Wal-Mart has. Any abutters are parties of interest, and can cost the township legal fees if they fight this project.
This collection of 4 retail buildings is just like any other off-street shopping center. If it ends up having a superstore, a restaurant and a bank, for example, you are clearly dealing with a shopping center. So don't give Wal-Mart any special deals because of its legal initimidation. Your own citizens can sue the township too.
This project is too large and in the wrong place. Whitehall should just say No."