Wal-Mart submits 'big box' plans as county poises for action

"Ban the Box" cries echoed over downtown streets on Dec. 17 as about 20 citizens rallied outside the Hood River County Courthouse to protest a "massive" Wal-Mart development.

That gathering took place as county officials inside waited for the national chain to submit its formal building plans for a 185,000 square foot super center on about 16 acres of commercial property at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads.

On Dec. 14 Wal-Mart representatives informed Mike Benedict, county planning director, that those plans would be delivered sometime during the afternoon of Dec. 17.

Monday evening the County Commission was poised to consider emergency action that would temporarily halt large-scale construction within the urban growth boundaries while a permanent code was under review.

About 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Scott Franklin from Pacific Land Designs, the company laying the regulatory groundwork for the development, delivered the formal building application to the planning office. Will Carey, county land-use attorney, said under Oregon law that action guaranteed the national chain store the right to have its plans reviewed under existing zoning criteria which does not limit the size of single commercial structures.

However, Donna Gray-Davis, spokesperson for the protesters, said Wal-Mart should not be allowed to have "grandfathered" rights when its application was submitted on the same day as the hearing.

"Well, I can properly dot every `i' and cross every `t' and make many proper and honorable requests, but you'd jolly well better not grant them until you consider the well-being of the entire rest of the population," said Gray-Davis in a written statement to the county board.

Three hours after Wal-Mart's building application was submitted, the third-floor courtroom and adjacent hallway were packed with citizens as the County Commission convened.

At issue was whether the elected body would enact temporary law to limit the contiguous "footprint" of structures on commercial property to 50,000 square feet. Although Wal-Mart would still be allowed the same overall square footage under that code, it would have been forced to have several buildings in the complex to comply with the new code.

After taking more than three hours of pro and con testimony, the county board began its deliberations. Some audience members cried out, "Shame on You!" and numerous people immediately left, interrupting Commissioner Les Hastings as he began to speak against the emergency action.

His statement followed those of Commissioners Les Perkins and Chuck Thomsen who believed that the adoption of a "big box" ordinance should follow standard procedure. The commissioners said emergency action should be used only in situations that were life-threatening, such as an epidemic or natural disaster.

"Some people say it's an emergency and others don't, but what we have to look at is if it affects life, health and property," said Thomsen, citing the three provisions for an emergency ordinance listed in the county's Home Rule Charter.

"I think from my standpoint those things are pretty sacred and I'd like to save an emergency ordinance for an actual emergency -- if we allow a large group of people to influence their elected officials to declare an emergency I don't think that's too good," he continued.

The board voted 4-1 against the emergency ordinance, with Commissioner Carol York supporting the stand of Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), an activist group opposed to any "big box" retailer, not Wal-Mart specifically.

"I do think it's very important that we look at size, location and compatibility and I would propose we do that sooner rather than later," said York.

Maureen Milton, CRG representative, submitted 1,056 signatures from citizens who did not want large-scale development to change the rural character of the community.

"Our group is not against growth, we're for it," said CRG member Maui Meyers. "What we have now is an emergency on our hands, the lights are red clear across the dashboard."

Conversely, Jack Brooks, general manager for the local Wal-Mart, added 300 more names to the 1,600 signatures already submitted in early December that backed the concept of a super center.

"I hate to mention it but Wal-Mart is winning and they must be winning because they are filling a need," said resident Ladd Henderson.

The debate at Monday's hearing waged largely over the potential gain or loss of local jobs that would result from construction of a "monolithic" store and the impact it would have on the community's rural character. The arguments were watched by several Boy Scouts from Troops No. 370 and 372, who received credit toward their citizenship merit badge by observing the political process at work.

"I thought it was kind of exciting but I was kind of appalled at how the people at the end acted," said Scout Matthew Kirby, 13, referring to the audience outburst.

Benedict said on Tuesday morning that many residents might have been upset at the meeting because they were unaware that ample opportunity will be provided for public input during the application review process.

"Most of the issues that people brought up concerning traffic, wetlands and safety are all required to be addressed by the developer in the normal application process," said Benedict.

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