In late January, after more than two hours of mostly favorable public testimony, the Board of Commissioners in Hood River County, Oregon voted unanimously to bar new retail stores over 50,000 square feet. The new ordinance also establishes a design review process for new retail buildings between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet.
The ordinance applies to land that lies outside the Hood River town limits, but is still within the community’s urban growth boundary. Under statewide planning law, Oregon communities are required to establish boundaries to guide new development and limit sprawl. Hood River is a town of about 5,000 in north central Oregon along the Washington border.
An identical retail size limit was enacted by the town of Hood River a few months ago. Under an intergovernmental agreement, whenever the town adopts a new land use ordinance, the county is obliged to consider the measure as well.
Jurgen Hess, chair of the city’s Planning Commission, said officials considered various thresholds and felt that 50,000 square feet was "an appropriate number given scale, livability and compatibility issues." He noted that the community was concerned that "not having this footprint ordinance would lead to a decrease in smaller businesses and a decrease in diversity."
"I’m pleased about the outcome, and what I’m really pleased about is the county and city coming together and starting to have a dialogue," said Judie Hanel, co-chair of Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), a grassroots group that came together last year to work for the size cap, fight a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter, and foster sustainable development and family-wage jobs.
The county’s size cap was enacted too late to stop a proposed 185,000 square foot Wal-Mart supercenter on land just outside the town limits. Wal-Mart submitted its application before the county voted on the measure and therefore will be grandfathered in. Wal-Mart already has a 72,000 square foot store in Hood River, which will likely close when the new supercenter opens.
According to CRG’s Maui Meyer, it was Wal-Mart’s application that finally spurred the county to act. The vote was unanimous partly because commissioners wanted to "atone for the fact that they hadn’t been paying attention" to the threat of big box retail.
The ordinance did put an end to the supermarket chain Safeway’s plans to build a large store. Unlike Wal-Mart, Safeway had not yet submitted a formal application.
CRG will continue to work to strengthen Hood River’s vibrant downtown, which includes a movie theater, hotel, and a variety of retail stores from hardware to office supplies. The group has also turned its attention to the area’s struggling apple and pear farmers, who’ve been undercut by imports. CRG wants to establish better links between farmers and local restaurants and grocers, increase consumer demand for local fruit, and encourage organic production.
Meanwhile, two-and-a-half hours south, the town of Madras is also considering a retail size cap. Mayor Rick Allen proposed the measure and hopes the town council will move quickly. No big box stores currently exist in Madras, but it’s only a matter of time, contends the mayor. According to rumors, Wal-Mart is already sniffing around town.