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2000-05-17
Mason City, IA. Wal-Mart Gets Slam Dunked!

Another city in the heartland says no to a Wal-Mart supercenter. The Mason City, Iowa City Council voted 2-4 yesterday to reject a zoning change for 310 acres of land along Highway 122, according to The Globe Gazette newspaper and reports from local sprawl-busters. Two Council members voted against rezoning, 4 voted in favor -- but the rezoning failed, because Wal-Mart needed a 5-1 favorable vote from the City Council to prevail. This is because the Mason City Planning & Zoning Commission had rejected the plan on April 25, forcing developers to appeal to the City Council. When a zoning case comes to the City Council on appeal, it must pass by a supermajority. That meant that opponents needed 2 people on the City Council to stop the rezoning. Don Nelson and Ken Lee turned out to be the two Council members who stopped Wal-Mart. The developer, Indianhead Farms, had asked for 3 zoning changes that would have paved the way for a 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. But the P&Z Commission voted 5-2 against the rezoning -- in fact they voted TWICE to make sure there was no confusion that they were against Wal-Mart's plans. In the balance was a large tract of agricultural land that the owner wanted to rezone to commercial arterial fronting the highway, with areas behind that zoned 3 different industrial classifications. City planners instead wanted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, but the developer said a PUD would not work for them. When the P&Z rejected the plan, they stated :"the size and magnitude of this project -- 300 plus acres -- had we approved it tonight, and then lost oversight of it forever, would not have been productive for the community." The developer complained after the P&Z vote: "We've shouldered a tremendous burden to make this happen and invested a lot of money." The developer had offered to pay the costs of road improvements and signalizing lights totalling around $310,000. "This is money on the table," the developer told officials. "Take it or leave it." They left it. The developer also offered to pay for the first phase of infrastructure construction estimated at $2.3 million. They claimed that the project would pay $3.8 million in property taxes, and $750,000 in sales taxes. "Is that kind of money something the city of Mason City can afford to let go?" Apparently local residents were not willing to let go of the future of their city. A former City Council member warned that the project would create "a whole new city...If this is approved, it will be the gateway to somewhere else. It won't be the gateway to Mason City." Wal-Mart pressured the city to approve its plans by a June 1 deadline, which angered local residents. "What will happen to downtown," the former Councilman was quoted as saying in the Globe-Gazette. "Do we really want to invest in a cornfield when we have downtown?"

What you can do: Wal-Mart told officials in Mason City that the Highway 122 location was the "only site" they would accept. "We have site selection specialists who are good at what they do," Wal-Mart said, "and they have selected the right site." But city officials were not prepared to give the developer free rein on such a large piece of land. They felt a PUD would give the city more oversight in the future as the rest of the project unfolded. The developer complained he could not put together a PUD plan and still meet Wal-Mart's self-imposed deadline of June 1st. Not to be overlooked here is the advantage of structuring your city charter to read that zoning decisions made by your plannning or zoning boards cannot be overturned by your city council without a "supermajority". In the Mason City case, it appears that to overturn a lower ruling by P&Z, the Council had to muster a four-fifths supermajority. If this had not been the case, Wal-Mart would be building now in Mason Cityi. Sprawl-Busters should check with their local town clerk's office to review your city or town charter to see if a supermajority vote is required. If not, it's recommended that you begin an affort to amend your charter to make such a supermajority a necessary step in overturning any zoning decision. Consult a local lawyer familiar with muncipal codes to draft out an amendment to begin lobbying for. It could pay off later on down the road when Wal-Mart comes in for a larger store.










 
 
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