Big-Box Ballot Initiatives: Wins & Losses

Date: 9 Nov 2004 | posted in: Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Voters in Hudson, Ohio—a community of 23,000 people thirty miles southeast of Cleveland—overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have opened the way for big-box stores and allowed developers to skirt the town’s development review process.

“We are ecstatic,” said Liz Murphy, owner of the Learned Owl bookstore and member of Smart Growth Hudson, a citizens group that formed to defeat the initiative.

Hudson’s current zoning code prohibits stores over 10,000 square feet and requires new construction to comply with strict design standards. The community has a lively downtown filled with many long-standing independent businesses.

The ballot initiative, sponsored by two developers and a local property owner, would have rezoned at least 60 acres of open space along Route 91 south of downtown to permit a 350,000?square-foot shopping center anchored by several big-box stores.

Under the proposed initiative, the development would have been exempted from local zoning, architectural, and environmental regulations, and subject to virtually no oversight by the planning commission and city council.

The developer moreover could at any time opt to expand the area covered by the initiative simply by buying land adjacent to the initial shopping center site.

Proponents of the measure claimed it would boost tax revenue and create jobs.

But Smart Growth Hudson and Hudson Tomorrow, another citizens group opposed to the initiative, argued that big-box development would generate additional public services costs that would exceed the tax benefits and that the community should focus on development that would create higher paying jobs.

Opponents of the initiative spent much of their time educating voters about the initiative’s fine print, as the language on the ballot gave little indication of the extent to which the measure would upend the town’s development review process.

Voters defeated the initiative 67 to 33 percent.


Talbot County, Maryland

Voters in Talbot County, Maryland, voted 53 to 47 percent to bar retail stores over 65,000 square feet. The size cap will apply to all areas of the county beyond the boundaries of incorporated cities and towns.

Talbot County is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore along Chesapeake Bay and is home to 34,000 people, about one-third of whom live in the town of Easton.

Passage of the ballot measure brings to an end a four year effort by both Home Depot and Lowe’s to build two superstores just outside of Easton.

A citizens group, the Talbot County Preservation Alliance, fought the proposals before the County Council and ultimately a state court of appeals. They won the court fight and elected new anti-sprawl members to the County Council, which subsequently enacted a 65,000-square-foot store size cap.

Lowe’s countered by gathering enough signatures to force a referendum on the cap. The retailer spent $58,000 trying to persuade voters to overturn the measure, while the Preservation Alliance spent about $10,000 defending the cap.

But even as the county moved to limit large-scale development, the city of Easton decided to open its door to big box stores. In August, the Town Council relaxed a five-year-old rule banning stores over 65,000 square feet. Larger stores are now allowed on land abutting or across the street from three existing shopping centers.

Town officials contend that the changes will allow large stores in appropriate and clearly defined areas, and relieve development pressure on the county. Lowe’s and Home Depot are now expected to file applications to build within Easton.


Belfast, Maine

Voters in Belfast, Maine, narrowly approved a ballot initiative that will allow stores of up to 200,000 square feet on four lots on the north side of town. The final vote tally was 1,970 to 1,794.

Three years ago, Belfast citizens defeated a proposed Wal-Mart superstore and enacted a 75,000-square-foot store size cap by a 2-to-1 margin.

Since then, Ames, a regional department store chain with a 45,000-square-foot store in Belfast, folded. Proponents of the zoning change argued that the community needed more shopping options and that department store retailers like Wal-Mart would not build stores smaller than 75,000 square feet (Wal-Mart in fact has built several smaller stores elsewhere in New England).

Belfast First, a citizens group that championed the size cap and fought the ballot initiative, contended that residents’ needs could be met by expanding local businesses. They noted that Reny’s, a Maine-owned chain of about a dozen discount stores, planned to replace its existing Belfast outlet with a much larger store of 32,000 square feet that will offer a broad range of household goods.

They also pointed out that a 150,000-square-foot store would consume fully one-quarter of retail sales in the county, undermining many existing small businesses and creating economic dislocation, not growth.

Whether the zoning change will usher in immediate big-box construction remains unclear. No specific proposal is on the table. The mayor and much of the city council oppose large-scale retail development. Two pro-big box council candidates, including Lewis Baker, who sponsored the ballot initiative, were defeated by a wide margin. Baker, whose family owns some of the land affected by the zoning change, has urged the council to “act quickly” to bring in new development—presumably before the community changes its mind.


Lodi, California

In Lodi, California, a ballot measure requiring voter approval for stores over 125,000 square feet failed by a margin of 58 to 42 percent. Lodi is a community of 61,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley about an hour south of Sacramento.

Measure R was placed on the ballot by a citizens group called the Small City Preservation Committee. It would have barred stores over 125,000 square feet unless they obtained approval from voters.

Supporters argued that the measure would curb sprawl, protect Lodi’s small town character, and preserve a wide variety of shopping choices by preventing one or two large retailers from taking over much of the local trade.

Opponents said Measure R would drive up property tax rates by keeping out development that could generate sales tax revenue for the city. Flyers urging a “no” vote erroneously stated that a proposed 227,000-square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter would produce $650,000 a year in sales taxes. But in fact an analysis found that the store would yield at most $233,000, or about $4 per capita.

The initiative’s failure clears the way for the supercenter, Wal-Mart’s third in California. The company contributed $95,000 to the campaign to defeat Measure R. Although final spending figures are not yet available, supporters of the measure were apparently outspent by at least a 2-to-1 margin.

Follow Stacy Mitchell:
Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.

Follow Stacy Mitchell:
Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.

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