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2000-08-18
Decorah, IA. Wal-Mart Wants to Dump on Iowa Town

I visited beautiful Decorah, Iowa back in December of 1998 at the invitation of the Citizens for Responsible Development. They were trying to stop Wal-Mart from leaving its 10 year old, 75,000 s.f. discount store to open up another store on the outskirts of town (see 12/19/98 newsflash). That was more than a year and a half ago. All during this time, Wal-Mart has been seeking approval to build its store on the banks of the Upper Iowa river. Before building the store, Wal-Mart had to move an existing business, Upper Iowa Marine, off its pad 100 yards north into the floodplain. But the Decorah Board of Adjustment refused to approve the special exception needed to allow the relocation. In turn, this meant that when Wal-Mart applied to the Board of Adjustment for a similar special exception, they could expect to be turned down also. The Board has made it clear that it will consider exceptions in a floodplain only for agricultural uses. Local residents seem to be more concerned about protecting their natural resources, the floodplain and the river, than the state officials entrusted with the same mission. The state's Department of Natural Resources already OK'd a permit for Wal-Mart to build in the floodplain, but local standards for floodplain development are higher than the state's. Now, residents say, Wal-Mart has sunk to a new low by trying to raise their building to a new high. The company, which proposed that 40% of its project be in a floodplain area, now is asking the City Council for permission to add dirt "fill" at its supercenter site. According to local press acounts, the move to dump dirt onto the site would be followed by an effort on Wal-Mart's behalf to rezone the land from floodplain to "commercial shopping center". This attempt by Wal-Mart to "build up" their site has local residents amazed. One sprawl-buster wrote to me: "It's hard to believe Wal-Mart will stoop to such depths". It's also hard to imagine that the City Council, which has been eagerly supporting Wal-Mart for nearly two years, would not rise to the occasion. Wal-Mart has not officially asked for a rezoning, but the City Administrator indicated such a move would "certainly seem logical." By filling in the land, Wal-Mart would attempt to navigate around the Board of Adjustment, which has refused to buckle under to Wal-Mart. But the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the City Council, might be more favorably disposed to Wal-Mart's "dirty deal." Opponents argue that adding dirt to a floodplain does not change the fact that it's still a floodplain, and should not trigger a rezoning. Residents are hoping that the City Council will not allow Wal-Mart to literally "dump" its 183,000 s.f. Wal-Mart on Decorah, and will not "dirty it's hands" by approving a rezoning.

What you can do: This story, and the previous one about Mason City, Iowa, show just how far these companies and town officials are willing to go to "cover up" the zoning rules to get their way. In the case of Decorah, Wal-Mart is trying to bury the local ordinance and the Board of Adjustment in a pile of dirt. This must be the derivation of the phrase "what a dirty thing to do". Some residents might prefer that Wal-Mart take its fill dirt and use it to cover up its existing 75,000 s.f. store, and just leave Decorah the beautiful small town that it is. Another side of this story is how desperately the company is to pursue this project for nearly two years. Assuming that Wal-Mart has lost two years of sales in Decorah, their supercenter could have produced $120 million in sales for the company that has now been foregone due to lengthy permit process delays. Citizen opposition has forced Wal-Mart to give up two years worth of sales in this Iowa community. This kind of roadblock is happening all across the country. For local contacts in Decorah, write to info@sprawl-busters.com










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

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