A public hearing on a county ordinance to limit stores to 60,000 square feet got a late start because it had to be moved first to the middle school auditorium and then to the gymnasium to accommodate the throng of nearly 1,400 people who turned out.
At the end of the evening, the Ravalli County Commission voted unanimously to adopt the interim measure, which will remain in effect for a year while the community works on a permanent ordinance. Ravalli county is home to the town of Hamilton, has a population of 44,000, and is about an hour south of Missoula.
“Last night was a watershed in Ravalli county,” said Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton and a member of the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, which proposed the size cap and has been working since 2004 to build public support for limiting large-scale retail development.
At first it was not clear whether the huge crowd favored or opposed the measure. But then the commissioners asked for a show of hands of those in support. As people looked around and saw most hands go up, cheers and then sustained applause spread through the gymnasium. More than two-thirds of the 100 people who testified at the hearing spoke in favor of the size cap. Hundreds more sent letters or phoned commissioners in advance of the hearing.
Most heartening of all, said Lawrence, was that, at the end of the public testimony, the commissioners “didn’t just vote based on the huge majority present, but actually talked about the planning issues at the heart of this proposal.” It was clear that they understood the economic and community impacts of superstores in some depth.
Lending urgency to the proceedings was Wal-Mart’s interest in building a 154,000-square-foot supercenter just outside of Hamilton. Wal-Mart contends its proposal was underway before the ordinance was adopted and is therefore grandfathered. Indeed, just days before the vote, Wal-Mart sent postcards to residents announcing its store as though it were a done deal. But the county attorney disagrees and says the county will hold the chain to the 60,000-square-foot limit.
Store size caps are being adopted by a growing number of cities and towns in order to maintain a diversity of competing retailers and ensure development of a scale appropriate to the community.