States and municipalities have long evaluated the impact that large retail development projects may have on such things as traffic and the environment. Some are now adopting policies that require that the economic and fiscal impact of these developments be considered as well.(Economic impacts include the effect on local businesses, jobs, and wages. Fiscal impact refers to the impact on tax revenue and government costs.)
These policies usually have two key components:
- They require that an independent study of the economic and fiscal impact of the retail development be conducted by a qualified analyst selected by the municipality (or other reviewing authority) and paid by a fee assessed to the developer.
- They establish a standard (or multiple standards) that the project must meet in order to be approved. The policy may say, for example, that the planning board (or city council or regional planning commission) may approve the development only if it concludes, based on the data provided by the study and other evidence submitted, that the project will not have an undue adverse impact or that the benefits of the development will outweigh the costs.
Typically, these reviews are triggered when the proposed development exceeds a certain size. For example, the law may apply to all projects involving retail stores larger than 50,000 square feet or those that will generate more than 500 vehicle trips per day.
Most of these laws spell out the types of impacts that the study must analyze and that officials must consider in determining whether to grant approval. The list may include such things as the impact that the development will have on existing businesses, the vitality of the downtown, employment (jobs gained versus jobs lost), wages, tax revenue, and municipal costs. Some laws also include community impacts, such historic and scenic resources, and environmental impacts.
The advantage of an independent study is that it ensures that the city (or regional planning board) has objective information about the economic impacts of the project. In the absence of such a study, the only information that local officials are likely to have are the rosy, and often misleading, job and tax revenue projections provided by the developer.
To learn more about how these studies are conducted see A Guide to Retail Impact Studies. We’ve also posted below some examples of actual impact studies of large-scale retail proposals conducted by various communities.
Most of these policies also stipulate that a public hearing must be held in order to give citizens an opportunity to testify on the findings of the study and to submit additional evidence regarding the impacts of the proposed development.
Below are examples of local, regional, and statewide economic impact review laws. Local policies are those enacted by cities and towns. We include several examples below. Reviews conducted under these laws generally only consider the impact of the project on the local community.
Large retail developments often have impacts that are felt far beyond the borders of the city in which they are located, however. In most of the country, there is no process for evaluating the regionwide costs and benefits of large-scale retail construction. Authority to approve or deny a development rests entirely with the host town, and any costs that fall on adjacent communities, such as loss of businesses and higher road maintenance costs, are generally not considered.
To remedy this, neighboring communities in a handful of regions have worked together to enact regional policies. A good example is the Cape Cod Commission, established in 1990 by the fourteen towns that make up Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Composed of representatives of each of the towns, the commission is charged with reviewing all development projects that are large enough to impact multiple towns. The commission’s review of these projects is in addition to any review and permitting required by the host municipality.
A significant advantage of implementing a regional approach is that it ensures that towns will not feel pressure to approve a harmful project out of fear that, if they reject it, the development will simply locate in a adjacent town, generating many of the same impacts but without any local tax revenue or oversight. Regional cooperation offers a solution to this problem.
Some states have considered policies that make economic and fiscal impact studies mandatory for large-scale development proposed anywhere in the state (but the decision on whether to approve the store remains in the hands of the municipality).
Another approach, taken by Vermont, is to establish regional planning boards throughout the state that review and decide whether to approve large developments. These boards are composed of representatives from all of the towns in each region.
- A Guide to Retail Impact Studies
This guidebook is designed to give municipal officials and citizens an understanding of how economic and fiscal impact studies of large-scale retail projects are conducted and what types of data they provide.
- Examples of impact studies: Walmart Neighborhood Market in South Seattle (2012); Walmart in St Albans, VT (2009); Walmart expansion to supercenter in Gunnison, CO (2005); Target/Lowe’s anchored project in Biddeford, Maine (2004); Walmart in Northern Neck, VA (1999).
- Impact of Big-Box Stores
Our library of key studies on the impact of big-box stores.
- Protecting Locally Owned Retail: Planning Tools for Curbing Chains and Nurturing Homegrown Businesses
by Stacy Mitchell, Main Street News, February 2004.
In September 2011, the California Legislature pased a bill requiring cities and counties to have an economic impact analysis prepared before deciding whether to approve an application to develop a large superstore. The legislation defines a superstore as a retail store of at least 90,000 square feet that devotes 10 percent or more of its space to groceries. The law lists a range of impacts that the study must assess and quantify. Continue reading
San Diego requires retail stores over 50,000 square feet to undergo a special review. Continue reading
This bill was introduced in 2006 and passed the Senate, but not the House. It would have established a statewide store size cap of 50,000 square feet. Continue reading
Vermont’s Act 250, adopted in 1970, requires development proposals of regional impact to obtain approval both from the local town and from one of nine regional commissions. Approval depends on meeting several conditions that focus on the project’s environmental and economic impact. This regional review process has limited sprawl and resulted in fewer large-scale retail stores per capita in Vermont than in all other states. Continue reading
Introduced in 2009, this bill stipulates that Oregon cities and counties may only approve retail stores larger than 75,000 square feet if they determine, based on an independent economic impact analysis, that the store would not have an "undue adverse impact." In addition to the economic factors, the analysis must examine the vehicle miles and carbon dioxide emissions that would be generated by the store. Continue reading
Enacted in June 2007, the Informed Growth Act stipulates that cities conduct an economic impact analysis for proposed stores larger than 75,000 square feet (roughly half the size of a typical Target or Home Depot). After considering the findings of the analysis and testimony taken at a public hearing, a town may approve such a project only if it concludes that the store would not have an undue adverse impact on the local economy. Continue reading
Established in 1990 by Cape Cod voters and made up of representatives of each of the Cape’s fifteen towns, the Cape Cod Commission has the authority to review, and reject, development projects that could significantly impact the peninsula’s economy and environment. Continue reading
In 2005, following a heated debate over a proposed big-box development, the town of Westbrook, Maine, adopted a zoning provision that require retail projects of 10 acres or more to undergo an economic impact analysis. The Planning Board must consider the study in deciding whether to approve or reject the project. Continue reading
Santa Cruz requires new retail stores over 16,000 square feet to obtain a special permit, with approval hinging on whether they add to a balanced and diverse mix of downtown businesses. Continue reading
The City of Mount Shasta, California, caps stores at 50,000 square feet and requires proposals for stores over 20,000 square feet to undergo an economic impact review and obtain a conditional use permit. Continue reading
In determining whether to approve or deny proposals for retail development, the Middletown Planning Board evaluates the project’s impact on traffic, municipal services, the environment, and the character of the community. Continue reading
Los Angeles requires proposed supercenters to pass an economic impact review in order to gain approval. Continue reading
Homer prohibits stores over 75,000 square feet and requires proposals for stores larger than 15,000 square feet to undergo a community impact review. Continue reading
Greenfield, Massachusetts, requires proposed retail stores to undergo a special review if they are to exceed 20,000 square feet or generate more than 500 vehicle trips per day. Continue reading
Among the most comprehensive of the municipal impact review laws, this proposed ordinance in Cranston, Rhode Island, would apply to all development projects involving retail stores of 75,000 square feet or more. It stipulates that these projects must undergo an independent economic impact analysis. Continue reading
Carbondale’s plannign policy requires the town’s planning staff and city council to weigh the community and fiscal impacts of a large-scale retail proposal before deciding whether to approve or deny the project. The ordinance applies to any retail development larger than 15,000 square feet in neighborhood business districts and those larger than 30,000 square feet in other areas. Continue reading
Brattleboro requires all proposals for retail stores in excess of 65,000 square feet to undergo an economic and community impact analysis. Continue reading
In January 2005, Bennington enacted an ordinance that establishes 50,000- and 75,000-square-foot size limits and requires a community impact study for retail development proposals over 30,000 square feet. Continue reading