On a 5-2 vote, the City Council in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city of 53,000 people about two hours north of Phoenix, approved an ordinance controlling the size, location, and community impacts of big-box stores.
The action is “important to the long-term vitality of Flagstaff,” said Becky Daggett, director of Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, a citizens group that worked for the ordinance’s passage. “This is about giving our community the tools to plan for our future and to make sure that development is walkable, human-scaled, and appropriate for our town.”
Opponents, backed by Wal-Mart, are gathering signatures to force a voter referendum on the new ordinance in March.
The measure caps stores at 125,000 square feet (equal to a typical Home Depot and about half the size of a Wal-Mart supercenter). It requires retail development projects over 75,000 square feet to undergo a community impact review and obtain a conditional use permit in order to proceed. The review will be conducted by an independent consultant chosen by the city and paid for by the developer. It will primarily focus on the fiscal impacts of the project (i.e., the potential tax revenue versus the cost of providing public services such as road maintenance and police).
The measure also bans stores over 75,000 square feet that devote more than eight percent of their floor area to groceries (thus prohibiting supercenters that combine general merchandise with a full supermarket).
Hundreds of citizens called and wrote to the city council or appeared at public hearings in support of the ordinance.
One of the main motivations behind the measure is to ensure that Flagstaff continues to be served by a large number of smaller businesses, particularly grocery stores, dispersed throughout the city’s neighborhoods, rather than allowing retail to become concentrated in small number of giant supercenters along a few major thoroughfares.
Fostering neighborhood-serving businesses will help make Flagstaff more walkable and reduce dependence on cars, a goal which residents have repeatedly endorsed through the city’s planning process.
Concerns about big-box stores locating just beyond the city’s boundaries were not an issue in discussions over the measure, because three years ago, Coconino County, which surrounds Flagstaff, adopted an ordinance banning stores over 70,000 square feet and requiring a conditional use permit for those over 25,000 square feet.
At the public hearings, residents and city councilors also spoke about the importance of maintaining an environment in which locally owned businesses could compete. Councilor Art Babbott talked about the “incredibly predatory economic tactics” employed by Wal-Mart supercenters and their failure to provide wages sufficient for employees to meet basic living costs.
Mayor Joe Donaldson supported the ordinance in part because he believes as many as three unionized supermarkets could close if a massive Wal-Mart or Target supercenter were to open. The city would end up trading higher-wage jobs for lower-wage jobs, and consumers would be left with fewer options and less competition. (Retail Forward reports that an average of two grocery stores close when a Wal-Mart supercenter opens.)
The ordinance, however, has met with opposition from a group of residents backed by Wal-Mart. They have created an organization called Protecting Flagstaff’s Future and are gathering signatures to place the ordinance on the ballot in March.
Friends of Flagstaff’s Future is forming a separate political action committee to fight the referendum. Daggett says she hopes voters uphold the rules “so that in 10 or 20 years, we can still look at this city and recognize it as someplace we want to live.”