Tuesday’s elections demonstrated that limiting the ability of corporations to bankroll local ballot initiatives is a crucial step in stopping the proliferation of big-box stores.
Target and Wal-Mart poured money into two campaigns to overturn store size cap laws in communities in California and Montana. They won by very narrow margins in both cases, despite having outspent grassroots groups that supported the caps by as much as 10-to-1.
But money doesn’t always win. Lowe’s lost a bid to build in another California town. Details on all three votes below.
Westlake Village, California
Voters rejected a Lowe’s project by a 55 to 45 percent margin in the town of Westlake Village, California.
Earlier this year, the City Council turned down a request by the big-box retailer to rezone 22 acres of land to allow construction of a large store.
But Lowe’s did not go away. Instead, the company bought the land in question and created a local front group led by a former mayor to place the rezoning measure on the ballot. Citizens organized as Westlake Village United fought the initiative and succeeded in persuading voters that Lowe’s would harm the community.
Voters in Davis, California, narrowly approved a zoning change to allow construction of a Target store. The vote was 11,761 to 11,087.
Davis has a long-standing policy that bars stores over 30,000-square-feet, or about one-fifth the size of a typical Target. The vote lifts that cap for a certain area of town where Target plans to build.
Target spent nearly $300,000 on its campaign. The company ran numerous television ads and targeted liberal voters by asserting that the Davis outlet would be a "green" store.
Target’s plans include a 136,000-square-foot single-story superstore, along with 46,000 square feet of other chain retail, surrounded by a 14-acre parking lot. Research shows that big-box stores substantially increase the amount of miles families drive for shopping and this in turn increases air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Storm water runoff from their vast parking lots also delivers large volumes of toxic pollutants to nearby water bodies.
Target’s "green" proposal does little to address these issues, but rather offers only gestures on behalf of environmental sustainability: some natural lighting in the store, electric car chargers in the parking lot, and a covered parking area for bicycles.
The store will likely have a substantial impact on the downtown. "Davis currently has 1.1 million square feet of retail. In the last 18 months, the city has approved 150,000 square feet of future retail," Chris Ochoa, a Davis planning commissioner, told the Sacramento Bee. "Now with the Target center, we’re adding another 185,000 square feet. That’s a 30 percent increase in retail in a short amount of time. To think that’s not going to negatively impact the downtown retailers is naive."
Opponents of the zoning change, including numerous local business owners and concerned citizens, formed Don’t Big Box Davis to fight Target’s initiative. The group led a strong, well-organized campaign, focusing on how the store would impact the local economy and the downtown. They managed to raise over $25,000, but Target outspent them 10 to 1.
Ravalli County, Montana
Voters in Ravalli County, Montana, narrowly voted to overturn a 60,000-square-foot store size cap law enacted by the County Commission in April. The vote was 7,900 to 7,429.
A citizens group, the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, spent months building support for the size cap. At a public hearing in April, which drew more than 1,400 people, the Ravalli County Commission voted unanimously to adopt the cap. Supporters argued the measure was essential to ensuring a fair playing field and a competitive retail market. It would, they said, put large retailers on an even footing with local merchants, rather than allowing them to dominate the market with over-sized stores.
Wal-Mart, working through a local front group called Citizens for Free Enterprise, gathered signatures for a voter referendum on the size cap and then spent $100,000 campaigning to overturn it. The company wants to build a 154,000-square-foot supercenter in Ravalli County on land situated just outside the town of Hamilton.
Although the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition ran a strong campaign, they were heavily outspent.
The coalition has registered two complaints about the election. One is that Wal-Mart did not appear in the name of the political committee sponsoring and supporting the referendum. Materials simply said "Ravalli County Citizens for Free Enterprise." State law requires political committees to use a name or phrase that clearly identifies the economic or other special interest funding their activities. Citizens for Free Enterprise was funded by Wal-Mart.
The second issue is that voters living in the county’s four incorporated towns were not able to vote on the measure. Although the cap applies only to unincorporated areas of the county, the law is not clear on whether all residents of the county have a right to vote on it. Supporters of the cap say that town residents will be impacted by large-scale retail development on the edge of their communities and should have a say. The four towns include about 7,000 voters.
To keep up with news and other items added to The Hometown Advantage, sign-up for our monthly email bulletin.
Interested in reprinting or distributing this article? Please see our Reprint Policy and Guidelines.