Infrastructure & Environment

Anti-Box Rebellion

There's no easy way for a small community to fight monster retailers. But there's a right time to do it: before they show up.
by | July 2000

Like thousands of places around the country, the town of Hatfield, Massachusetts, has always taken a rather casual approach toward controlling commercial development. Which is to say, it barely controls it at all. Certain parts of the town are zoned commercial. There are some general, minimal standards by which to review projects. But beyond that, it's strictly a hands-off policy. For the most part, developers make the big decisions on use, size and building design. Nor is there any evaluation of a project's potential economic effect. Whatever fiscal impact might come--good or bad--is just treated as a roll of the dice. Hatfield, in other words, is a big-box retailer's kind of town.

In fact, it might be regarded as a big-box retailer's dream come true. Situated above an easy bend in the Connecticut River just north of the bustling college town of Northampton, and connected umbilically to Interstate 91, Hatfield easily could have attracted one or more big-box companies a long time ago. But it was only last year that Home Depot began casing the neighborhood, looking for a spot to drop another stadium-sized store with miles-of-aisles of bargain building materials. It was a wake-up call.

Or, perhaps it would be better to say a pre-wake-up call. Home Depot didn't purchase any land or file an application to build anything. It just came on a scouting trip.

But that scouting trip was the reason this year's Hatfield town meeting--held over the course of two nights in May--evolved into an interesting exercise in the civics of growth management. On the docket were two measures, referred to by initiates simply as Article 28 and Article 30. Nondescript, perhaps, but to supporters--sitting in folding aluminum chairs on the high school gymnasium floor--those two bits of business represented a chance to build a firewall between the town's laissez-faire development attitude and an invasion of what critics refer to derisively as "sprawl marts." To the other side, of course, the measures represented something entirely different--an unwelcome step toward meddlesome municipal land use regulation.

First up was item 28, a one-year moratorium on all retail development over 10,000 square feet, which would give the town time to update its master plan. Item 30, the companion measure, would amend the town's zoning law to allow for a much more thorough review of all major retail development in the future to determine its impact on Hatfield. With each measure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, supporters were predicting close votes.

And so, as the town meeting worked its way through early items of business--anteing up $23,000 for painting and repairs to the town hall, paying $165,000 into the retirement system--the answer to a simple but central question loomed closer in Hatfield: Was a small New England town going to seize control of its own development destiny, or continue to leave it all up to circumstance and whoever happened to come along with a commercial proposition?

It is a question that more and more communities are beginning to wrestle with. Indeed, the fight over land use regulation in Hatfield represents a new front in the battle of the big-box store. In the past, the typical fight against one of these stores--which critics excoriate for their pave-it-over approach to design and their predatory effect on local small business--has been a last-ditch effort pulled together by volunteers, many of whom were never civically active before. Such fights typically begin after the decision is all but made. Realtors, developers and retailers have scouted the terrain, zeroed in on a site, lined up powerful local allies and legal assistance, and started drawing specific plans to move in. It's no surprise when such opposition fails.

The new approach is very simple: Be ready for mega-retailers such as Home Depot, Costco, Target and Wal-Mart before they come to town. Communities around the country are finding a wide assortment of ways to do this. In some places, they are rewriting design guidelines to blunt the physical impact of superstores (for example, by requiring that parking be hidden behind buildings or that the structures themselves come closer to sidewalks). Or they are using land use laws to steer development away from open space and back downtown--or at least into existing empty malls or large buildings.

Elsewhere, developers are being asked to provide a detailed independent study of the impact a giant retailer would have on property values, local merchants, the cost of emergency services and overall tax rates. Localities can use the results of such studies to ask for modification of a project, or to reject the development outright.

At the same time, some localities are asking the larger question of whether they need any more retail development at all. A number of them are taking a hard look at the ratio of commercial development to population in order to guard against retail overbuilding. If they decide that they are already overbuilt, they may oppose any new projects, big-box or otherwise. Or, if they are bold enough, they can take the ultimate step: simply zone big developments out of town by placing a cap on the size of any new retail facility.

No matter which strategy a community uses, in the end it usually comes down to zoning codes. In the words of Al Norman, the Greenfield, Massachusetts, resident who has been fighting big-box stores for a decade, "There is no single word in the developer's lexicon that is so hated as the six letter word `zoning.'"

One of the first communities to act preemptively on the big-box issue was Fort Collins, Colorado, which had already witnessed downtown devastation in the 1970s, when it lost Sears, Walgreens, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward to mall development on the fringes of town. When Fort Collins saw big-box stores circling to land in the early 1990s, it passed a six-month development moratorium, then used that time to beef up its design-review criteria for any retail development of more than 25,000 square feet. As a result, Fort Collins became a pioneer in requiring big-boxers to pay attention to facade design, building materials and colors, and the placement of parking, sidewalks and entrances. The city recently used this approach to soften the impact of a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart that is beginning construction this summer.

Fort Collins didn't ban the project outright, because it no longer feels any need to do that: The city's downtown has returned to life as a thriving boutique, restaurant and specialty-store center, and isn't really threatened by superstores. But the city does want considerably more control over what comes in and how it's built.

Even that sort of regulation rarely sits well with companies that are used to their own formula for putting in stores. One of the most contentious items surrounding the Wal-Mart project in Fort Collins, for example, was the city's requirement that the developer drastically scale back parking in front of the building. "They didn't like doing it," says chief planner Ted Shepard. "They fought us." But the city stuck to its guns, and the resulting agreement made it clear that in Fort Collins, at least, the sea-of-asphalt-in-front-of-pre-fab- corrugated-metal-monolith era was drawing to a close.

Vermont, famous among sprawl opponents for being the last state in the union to hold out against Wal-Mart, has seen its towns move on to a strategy of allowing the retail giant in, but forcing it to go where the community wants--not just anyplace Wal-Mart feels like going. In Bennington, in the southwest part of the state, the company was steered into a dead mall on the outskirts of town. Perhaps not an ideal location from a downtown-revival standpoint but still within what Bennington calls its "urban envelope." In Rutland, to the north, Wal-Mart agreed to go into an available space right in the town center.

But for some communities, neither the Fort Collins nor the Vermont strategy is tough enough. They want to keep the big-boxes out altogether. And some are finding ways of doing that.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, where Wal-Mart wanted to drop in a 220,000-square-foot "supercenter"--the size of four football fields-- planning staff successfully argued that the project would exacerbate the city's already out-of-whack population-to-commercial-land ratio. According to the St. Petersburg Comprehensive Plan, an "oversupply" of retail space exists when there is more than one acre of commercial land for every 150 residents. An analysis done two years in advance of the Wal-Mart proposal found that the city was already at one acre of commercial land for every 143 residents. The project was rejected.

Conceivably, circumstances might change in St. Petersburg and such a project would be allowed in. Which is why the ultimate inoculation against big-box development is more straightforward: Amend your zoning code's schedule of dimensions--that all-important table usually tucked into the back of the ordinance that lists the height, size and setback requirements for various types of development.

This past March, the town of Boxborough, Massachusetts, updated its commercial zoning schedule of dimensions to prohibit any retail structure larger than 25,000 square feet (the average big-box routinely breaks 100,000). In Boxborough, there will be no debates at all over the impact of a big-box; as long as the ordinance remains unchanged, they're never going to get one. "We had a Home Depot looking at the west side of town," says Scott Robinson, one of the local activists who helped engineer the cap. "We decided we didn't want 10,000 cars a day driving through our neighborhoods."

But it's not just the impact of stores on their own towns that some communities worry about; it's what happens in the next town over. While the long-term economic benefit of superstores is a subject of debate--some argue they ultimately cost a local government more than they bring in--the prospect of property tax and sales tax money associated with a new store often allows developers to play one jurisdiction off against another. If Ourtown says a superstore has to meet certain design standards, a developer can threaten to jump over the border to Theirtown if Ourtown officials don't capitulate.

When jurisdictions join forces, developers have considerably less leverage in their fight to make governments conform to the big-box blueprint. In Fort Collins, for example, there would be no benefit to Wal-Mart in jumping just over the town line onto unincorporated county property, even though the county places virtually no zoning restrictions at all on commercial development. That's because under an intergovernmental agreement that the city has with the county, any development immediately adjacent to Fort Collins is automatically annexed to the city.

Such intergovernmental cooperation is still rare, however, which makes Hatfield, Massachusetts, an even more interesting study in the new preemptive approach. The six-month moratorium that was debated in May was part of a deal worked out with nearby Northampton, and the deal was this: The site that was originally being considered by Home Depot--the one that inspired Hatfield to propose tighter land use controls--actually straddled the Hatfield/Northampton line. To gain the control it wanted, Hatfield not only had to amend its own law, it had to persuade Northampton not to allow development on its share of the parcel pending Hatfield's master plan and zoning code update. But Northampton, in turn, needed to be convinced that Hatfield wouldn't turn around and scoop up Home Depot all for itself if Northampton held off. The way to do that was for Hatfield to pass Article 28, the one- year moratorium.

So quite a bit was resting on the debate in the high school gym that warm evening in May. Not only the question of whether Hatfield would begin to exercise more control over development within its boundaries, but whether two jurisdictions would begin working cooperatively on land use plans that affected them both--or whether relations might deteriorate into damaging competition for development.

As Article 28 finally made its way to the floor, the relatively brisk pace of the meeting ground to a crawl. For an hour, residents argued back and forth about the merits and the potential impact of the moratorium. Opponents said that it was flat-out anti-business and anti-land owner. Some added that Northampton couldn't be trusted to keep up its end of the zoning bargain and that as soon as Hatfield passed its moratorium, Northampton would rezone those abutting parcels and start recruiting retail development that might have been Hatfield's. The other side insisted that the moratorium created vital breathing room to work on the master plan and to think through a host of issues around zoning and land use planning for the 21st century. Defeat of the moratorium, this faction said, might incite a pointless and divisive retail recruitment competition just as the two towns were taking the first tentative steps toward working together.

In the end, the vote proved to be no contest. Residents approved the moratorium 128 to 23. Then, the next night, the town meeting approved Article 30, the zoning amendment calling for more detailed scrutiny of all retail development of more than 10,000 square feet. It passed by an even more resounding 119 to 3.

Articles 28 and 30 are relatively modest measures when compared with what other towns and cities have been doing on land use. Yet it was hard to avoid the feeling in listening to the debates and then witnessing the votes that citizens of a small community had just spoken out loudly and clearly about who would be calling the development shots in town from then on. They would.

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