Dozens of communities, recognizing that their local economies can absorb only so much new retail without causing numerous existing businesses to close, have enacted zoning rules that prohibit stores over a certain size. Store size caps help to sustain the vitality of small-scale, pedestrian-oriented business districts, which in turn nurture local business development. Store size caps prevent the many negative impacts of big-box development, such as increased traffic congestion and over-burdened public infrastructure, and they protect the character of the community by ensuring that new development is at a scale in keeping with existing buildings.
Size caps do not single out particular companies and prevent them from doing business. Instead they require all retailers to build stores that are appropriately sized for the community. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other chains are free to open stores so long as those outlets do not exceed the size limit—a limit that local businesses are also subject to. Cities that have adopted size caps find that, in some cases, retailers that typically build larger stores will opt not to open and, in other cases, they will design a smaller store that fits within the cap.
Key Decisions in Drafting a Size Cap
For more detailed guidance on these and other key questions to consider in drafting a cap, see our Store Size Cap Policy Kit, which includes a model ordinance, tips and advice for drafting an ordinance, supporting research, and other materials.
• What should be the size limit?
What constitutes an appropriate upper limit for the size of retail stores depends on many factors, including the size of the town, the scale of its existing buildings, and its long-term goals with regard to retail development. Some communities have banned only the biggest stores, while others have chosen much smaller limits. A cap of 50,000 square feet is about average. (For a visual illustration of various store sizes, see How Big Are Big Box Stores?)
• What will be the geographic extent of the cap?
Like all zoning laws, size caps can apply to the entire city or just a particular neighborhood. San Francisco, for example, bars new stores larger than 4,000 square feet from locating in certain neighborhoods, and sets a larger cap in others. If the cap applies only to particular areas of town or if the size allowed varies by zone, a reasonable justification for the distinctions should be articulated in the policy.
Some counties have adopted store size caps to keep big box retailers from building in unincorporated areas beyond city boundaries. States could adopt statewide size limits, though, so far, only Vermont has considered such a measure. Outside of the United State, where land use policy is typically set at the national, rather than local, level, some countries, including Ireland and Norway, have adopted nationwide store size caps.
• How should a single retail establishment be defined?
In Calvert County, Maryland, Wal-Mart tried to get around a size cap by proposing to build two adjacent stores. Most size cap ordinances are not vulnerable to this because they define two or more adjacent buildings operated by one company as a single retail store for the purposes of the cap (meaning the total square footage of all the grouped buildings cannot exceed the cap).
The Legality of Size Caps
Cities and towns have long had the authority—through the zoning powers granted to them by state law—to control the scale of development. Most municipal zoning codes are filled with provisions that regulate scale by, for example, restricting the height of buildings or setting a minimum acreage for house lots.
Store size caps are merely a variation on this long-standing use of zoning to ensure that new development is of a scale appropriate to the community. As such, they are perfectly legal. Indeed, scores of cities and towns have restricted the size of stores and their laws have not been challenged.
The only cities that have faced challenges are those with size cap ordinances that apply only to certain types of retailers or in certain circumstances.
Wal-Mart tried to overturn a Turlock, CA, law that prohibits stores over 100,000 square feet that devote more than 5 percent of their space to groceries. While Wal-Mart and Target supercenters are affected by the policy, other kinds of large stores that do not carry food are not. Wal-Mart argued the ordinance was discriminatory and illegally interfered with competition. But both state and federal courts upheld Turlock’s ordinance, ruling that the restrictions are constitutional, do not unduly harm competition, and are a valid use of municipal zoning authority.
Another case involved an ordinance in Frankenmuth, MI, that bars stores over 65,000 square feet but applies to only one area of town. An affected property owner whose land had been optioned by Wal-Mart filed suit against the town, arguing that the law violates several provisions in the US Constitution, including equal protection, due process, and the dormant commerce clause. In a March 2009 decision, a federal court dismissed the due process and commerce clause claims, but ruled that the equal protection claim should proceed to a full trial. The judge said that the town’s stated justifications for the size cap were legitimate, but that those justifications supported a citywide cap and did not seem to provide a rational basis for excluding some areas from the limit.
Several cities in California and Arizona have adopted “supercenter” ordinances like the one in Turlock described above. Unlike broader store size cap ordinances, which limit the size of all types of retail stores, these measures cap only those stores that devote a percentage of their floor space or inventory to groceries, such as Target and Wal-Mart supercenters. These laws do not affect stores that do not carry food and, in many cases, also exclude warehouse stores that sell food in bulk, such as Costco.
Below, we have included one example of a supercenter ordinance, this one from Turlock, California. Follow the Turlock link to see a list of other cities that have adopted similar policies.
Although supercenters do have some unique impacts that distinguish them from other large-format retail stores, the New Rules Project favors setting an across-the-board limit that applies to all retail stores. From a policy standpoint, all large-scale retailers have significant impacts on the local economy, the vitality of neighborhood and downtown business districts, the environment, and community life. From a political standpoint, land use regulations that set consistent limits on the scale of retail development are likely to garner much broader support and are not vulnerable to arguments that they unfairly target particular companies.
- Store Size Cap Policy Kit
Includes a model ordinance, tips and advice for drafting an ordinance, supporting research, and other materials.
- How Big is Too Big?
Two-page fact sheet on the effects of large stores and store size cap ordinances.
- How Big Are Big Box Stores?
A visual illustration of different store sizes, ranging from Main Street retailers to supercenters.
- Impact of Big-Box Stores
Key studies and fact sheets
- Protecting Locally Owned Retail: Planning Tools for Curbing Chains and Nurturing Homegrown Businesses
by Stacy Mitchell, Main Street News, February 2004.
San Diego prohibits stores over 90,000 square feet that devote more than 10 percent of their floor area to groceries. Several cities in California and Arizona have adopted similar ordinances in recent years. Continue reading
To maintain a diversity of small-scale, neighborhood-serving businesses, San Francisco prohibits stores over 4,000 square feet in several of its neighborhood commercial districts. Continue reading
Taos prohibits stores that exceed 80,000 square feet and requires developers to obtain a special permit to build stores over 30,000 square feet. To receive a permit, developments must meet specific criteria and comply with the town’s architectural and design standards. Continue reading
This Norwegian law enacted in 1999 placed a five year moratorium on the construction of retail centers larger than 3000 square meters (32,300 square feet).
An Irish planning law adopted in 1998, and renewed in 2001 and 2005, restricts retail stores in the Dublin area to 3,500 square meters (38,000 sq. ft.) and those in the rest of the country to 3,000 square meters (32,000 sq. ft.). Non-food retailers may build larger stores only in designated zones in nine cities. Continue reading
In September 2008, Whatcom County in Washington state adopted a store size cap measure limiting retail stores to no more than 65,000 square feet in urban growth areas and no more than 35,000 square feet in the rest of the county. Continue reading
In January 2004, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban retail outlets over 60,000 square feet and require those between 25,000 and 60,000 square feet to meet certain conditions. Continue reading
In 2003, the Talbot County Council enacted an ordinance barring stores over 65,000 square feet from locating in any area of the county outside of the boundarires of incorporated cities and towns. Lowe’s, a national home improvement chain, gathered signatures to force a ballot referendum on the size cap in November 2004. But voters upheld the cap in a 53 to 47 percent vote. Continue reading
In April 2006, the Ravalli County Commission unanimously adopted an temporary ordinance limiting stores to no more than 60,000 square feet. Although nearly 1,400 people turned out at the public hearing to support the measure, it was later placed on the ballot by a Wal-Mart-funded group and overturned by a very narrow margin. Continue reading
In May 2007, Kauai became the first Hawaiian island to prohibit big-box stores by instituting an island-wide store size cap of 75,000 square feet. Continue reading
In August 2001, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance that prohibits retails stores larger than 70,000 square feet and requires a conditional use permit for those larger than 25,000 square feet. Coconino County has a population of 132,000. Its county seat is Flagstaff.
A number of other examples of store size caps. Continue reading
In response to Wal-Mart’s bid to place a supercenter in their town, Zionsville, Indiana (pop=12,000), enacted an ordinance prohibiting stores over 60,000 square feet and shopping centers over 125,000 square feet. Continue reading
Even though Westford, Massachusetts, beat back a Wal-Mart in 1994, citizens at Town Meeting soon after added future protection by prohibiting the building of large retail developments (over 60,000 sq. ft.) and making it harder to build 30,000 – 60,000 sq. ft. developments by requiring that they apply for special permits, allowing time for citizen input and review by planning boards. Continue reading
The town of Warwick, New York, a rural community about one hour north of Manhattan, enacted a new comprehensive plan in 1999 that calls for supporting "small, locally owned businesses and retail centers" and a new zoning code in 2002 that bars stores over 60,000 square feet and shopping centers with multiple stores that together exceed 80,000 square feet. Continue reading
On March 14, 2000, the residents of Walpole voted overwhelmingly to enact a 40,000-square-foot size limit on new retail stores and restaurants. Continue reading
After three consecutive six-month building moratoria in response to a proposal to construct a 150,000-square-foot shopping center, this small town of 7,500 people adopted a comprehensive town plan which included a zoning restriction limiting retail stores to no more than 45,000 square feet and shopping center sites to no more than 15 acres. Continue reading
In July 2001, the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, adopted this ordinance prohibiting retail stores larger than 150,000 square feet and requiring stores over 30,000 square feet to comply with architectural and site design standards. Continue reading
The city of Rockville bans stores over 65,000 square feet and requires those over 25,000 square feet to comply with design and siting guidelines. The city’s ordinance has a strong list of findings to support the size cap. Continue reading
In Februrary 2008, the Town Council enacted a measure barring stores over 45,000 square feet and imposing additional standards on those of 25,000 square feet or more. Continue reading
In May 2002, the Northampton City Council enacted ordinances prohibiting retail stores larger than 90,000 square feet, and requiring that developers proposing stores larger than 20,000 square feet either construct pedestrian-friendly, two-story buildings contiguous to the street or pay a $5 per square foot mitigation fee. Continue reading
After a long ordeal fighting Wal-Mart, North Elba adopted a size cap ordinance limiting single retail stores to 40,000 square feet and capping shopping centers at 68,000 square feet. Continue reading
In March 2006, voters in the town of Nobleboro endorsed a measure capping stores at 45,000 square feet. Continue reading
In 2006, responding to a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter, the City Council in Neptune Beach, Florida, adopted a size cap ordinance that limits stores to no more than 60,000 square feet. Continue reading
In April 2005, Madison, Wisconsin, adopted a big-box ordinance that imposes some limits on the size of retail stores, but it is quite permissive compared to other examples on this site. The ordinance limits retail buildings to a footprint of no more than 100,000 square feet.Becausethe limit is on the footprint of the building, rather than the gross leasable area of the store, the rules allow stores to be larger provided they are multi-story. Continue reading
Hailey, Idaho, which has a population of 7,500 and is located in the center of the state, three hours east of Boise, limits the floor area of retail and wholesale businesses to no more than 36,000 square feet in the town’s business and limited business zones and 25,000 square feet in other industrial and commercial zones. Continue reading
In March 2006, voters in Damariscotta, Maine, overwhelming approved a measure barring stores over 35,000 square feet (about the size of a medium grocery store). The size cap was approved by a 62 to 38 percent margin in what officials say was one of the largest election turnouts in the town’s history. Continue reading
The city of Charlevoix caps stores at 45,000 square feet, while the surrounding township limits them to 90,000 square feet. Continue reading
In February 2003, the city of Bozeman, Montana, enacted an ordinance limiting retail stores to no more than 75,000 square feet and requiring retail developments between 40,000 and 75,000 square feet to meet design and site development standards. Continue reading
In 2001, after Wal-Mart optioned land on the outskirts of Belfast, Maine, a community of 6,500 in the fast-growing midcoast region, the city council adopted a temporary moratorium on large stores and placed an initiative permanently banning stores over 75,000 square feet on the ballot. On election day, voters endorsed the size cap by a 2-to-1 margin. Continue reading
Ashland, a town of 17,000 in southern Oregon, has a citywide ordinance limiting retail stores to no more than 45,000 square feet. Continue reading
In 2002, voters in Agoura Hills, a community 20 miles north of Los Angeles, adopted a measure limiting stores to no more than 60,000 square feet. Continue reading
In 2007, the city of Fairfield enacted regulations to limit retail stores and restaurants located in neighborhood business districts to no more than 4,000 square feet. The city has twelve neighborhood business districts. Continue reading
In November 2000, the Kansas City Council approved new measures, including a 10,000-square-foot store size cap, to protect the Brookside neighborhood from large-scale, suburban-style retail development. Continue reading
The Easton Town Council enacted a temporary moratorium on large-scale retail stores in September 1999 to allow time for residents and town officials to consider the impacts of such stores and amend the zoning rules accordingly. In 2000, the Town Council adopted a store size cap ordinance prohibiting retail stores larger than 65,000 square feet Continue reading
In 2006, the Bellingham City Council enacted an ordinance that prohibits stores over 90,000 square feet and imposes design standards on those over 60,000 square feet. Continue reading