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Watchdog group opposes 'big boxes'

A grassroots effort has formed to prevent "big box" stores from being sited just outside the city limits.

More than 60 members of Citizens for Responsible Growth crowded into the Hood River County Commission meeting on Nov. 5. They called on the board to follow the city's lead and adopt a 50,000 square foot size limitation on commercial structures within the urban growth area as quickly as possible.

That request followed on the heels of last week's pre-application meeting between Wal-Mart representatives and Hood River service agencies. Earlier this month, the national chain store submitted preliminary sketches for a 185,000 square foot retail outlet on a little more than 16 acres of commercial property at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads.

However, Judie Hanel, spokesperson for the growth watchdog group, said the push to limit building sizes wasn't directed against Wal-Mart specifically, it was "anti-sprawl" to protect the area's economy, air, water and land resources.

"We believe growth will happen," said Hanel. "Only by preparing for it can we ensure that growth supports compatible development, diversification and family-wage job creation."

She said the city had forwarded its new commercial code to the county on Oct. 11, and, under the agreement made between both governmental bodies in 1997, the county had to consider a compatible plan within 180 days. But several members of the citizen group told commissioners that time was of the essence to speed up that process since Wal-Mart had not yet submitted a formal building application so did not have "grandfathered" rights to build a super-center.

However Mike Benedict, county planning director, said state time guidelines for hearings had been set up to prevent land-use ordinances from being "railroaded" through the system. For example, he said once the county notified the state of the proposed code sometime this week there would be an initial 45-day waiting period just to gather public comment. Then he said the scheduled review would be subject to other local and state notification periods which couldn't be circumvented. He said the same time constraints would be required to set a moratorium on building sizes until the new code had been adopted.

Benedict said that since the Wal-Mart store would be sited on land already zoned for commercial use, the business wouldn't ordinarily be required to go through the permit process which was open to public comment. However, because of the controversial nature of the pending application, Benedict said he had exercised his discretionary authority to have the proposed use formally reviewed by the planning commission. He said that quasi-judicial body was bound to follow applicable law on consideration of development applications.

Benedict said public comment was currently being accepted on Wal-Mart's draft plan and as finalized development reports -- including a requested wetland inventory and traffic engineering studies -- became available they would be available for review at his courthouse office or could be copied for 25 cents a page.

Hanel said the Citizens for Responsible Growth recently organized to support the city's "responsible and pro-active" approach to development. The group is accepting donations to defray operating and possible legal costs at P.O. Box 22, Hood River, 97031. For more information, Hanel invites residents to call her at 386-6221 or Maui Meyer at 490-3051.

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