Years of fighting a Wal-Mart supercenter slated for a flood plain in a rural area of Decorah, Iowa, have finally paid off for a tenacious group of residents and small business owners.
On April 2, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the Decorah City Council acted illegally when it approved a Wal-Mart supercenter in the Upper Iowa River flood plain.
In 2000, the City Council granted Wal-Mart a permit to fill the flood plain. The Supreme Court ruled that the decision was not the City Council’s to make. Instead, the authority belonged to the board of adjustment, a quasi-judicial body which had previously denied a fill permit for a local business seeking to build in the same area.
The Court further ruled that City Council had violated Decorah’s Comprehensive Plan, which calls for leaving flood plain land undeveloped for environmental and aesthetic reasons. All zoning decisions must comply with local comprehensive plans, the Court ruled.
Many residents who spoke at a City Council hearing on the fill permit were quoted in the Supreme Court’s decision. “Even on the cold minutes of the meeting, it is apparent the council would have known. . . they had a tiger by the tail,” the Court wrote. “The residents were deeply divided on the issue, raising concerns about the environmental impact, the fairness of the proceedings. . . and the prospect of 120,000 cubic yards of fill being placed in the floodplain. . .”
The lawsuit was brought by adjacent property owners with the help of public interest attorney Karl Knudson and a grassroots group called Citizens for Responsible Development.
It remains unclear what will become of Wal-Mart’s $20 million building, which was completed last fall but left empty pending the outcome of the case. The Court did not specify a remedy.
Wal-Mart could attempt to negotiate with the plaintiffs, some of whom have said that the only solution is removal of the building and restoration of the flood plain. Wal-Mart also has two weeks to request that the Supreme Court review its decision.
In the meantime, attention has turned to a second lawsuit filed by the same plaintiffs, challenging the City Council’s decision to rezone the site from agriculture to commercial retail.