Cheers greeted the Taos, New Mexico, Town Council last month when members voted 3-2 to reject a proposal to allow construction of retail stores as large as 200,000 square feet. The vote reaffirms an ordinance adopted in 1999 that prohibits stores over 80,000 square feet.
The issue has been hotly debated in this community of 7,000 for more than three months. It began when a handful of residents organized under the banner La Gente (“the people”) and petitioned the Town Council to lift the store size limit. La Gente’s activities were bankrolled by a Chicago developer seeking to build a 338,000-square-foot shopping center anchored by a Wal-Mart supercenter on the south side of town.
A grassroots group, Taosenos Against Wal-Mart Super Stores, collected thousands of petition signatures against the development. The group contends Wal-Mart is a predatory corporation that will exploit workers, destroy local businesses, and erode the community’s quality of life.
The Taos County Chamber of Commerce and the Hispano Chamber of Commerce also came out against the zoning change after surveys of their members revealed overwhelming opposition.
A survey commissioned by the town found that residents favored keeping the size cap by a 61-to-39-percent margin. Support for the size limit has increased. A similar survey taken four years ago when a Wal-Mart supercenter was first proposed, found that residents were evenly divided about the prospect of large stores. That controversy ended when the town turned down the supercenter and implemented the 80,000-square-foot cap.
The developer now says his firm will look to build a supercenter outside the town boundaries either on county or Taos Pueblo land. “They’ve been trying to play the town and the county against each other all along,” noted Fritz Hahn of Taosenos Against Wal-Mart Super Stores. “We’re not going away. We’re not backing off. There will be no super Wal-Mart.”