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Another voice: Walmart expansion decision based on laws not public opinion

December 31, 2011

Walmart's proposal to expand its Hood River store has triggered an active debate on issues both local and national. Most of it has been civil and interesting; though largely unrelated to the question before the city council. Now that the city council has completed its proceedings I am free to talk about it, and I'd like to share a few thoughts with you.

If I can only get one thing across in this letter, it is that land use issues are decided by law, not public opinion. The city does not get to pick and choose which businesses come to town, and it does not get to arbitrarily decide what they can sell. We do get to set zoning law, within constitutional limits, and see that law applied fairly to all landowners.

It was my job in presiding over the hearing this month to see that Walmart's application was judged under the law, without consideration of personal or public sentiment, and received the same treatment that any other application would receive. It was a difficult task.

The vast majority of testimony we received from both sides concerned Walmart's effect on the community and the nation. I suppose we could have chosen to make a statement by deciding the issue on Walmart's business practices, but such a decision would be reversed in the courts - a pointless and possibly costly gesture.

Let's talk about what we actually could consider in our decision. A large part of our job was to interpret the 1991 planning document which allowed construction of the existing Walmart store. Sounds straightforward, but I can tell you that it took me countless hours to read the document, related testimony, traffic study, statutes and municipal code, legal briefs, and finally case law before I felt sufficiently informed to make a decision. I'm just one of seven who received this homework assignment (as well as four planning commission members before us).

You've all read assertions that our task was easy, the meaning of the 1991 document clear and obvious. The opposition lawyer made the bold assertion that there was only one possible way to interpret the order. I sure didn't see it this way.

In fact, I counted three distinct interpretations of the document in the testimony by opponents to Walmart's expansion, so apparently they didn't all see it the same way either. Two council members I respect greatly came to a different conclusion than I did, so I can safely place this in the category of issues where honest people can disagree.

Unfortunately, after rebuffing the efforts to emotionalize the issue, we're now facing a concerted effort to demonize us for our decision. You've read a lawyer's declaration in this newspaper that our decision was "outrageous." We've been subjected to claims of bias, graft, ignorance, naiveté and stupidity.

I understand the tactic of demonizing someone who disagrees with you, but I simply don't think it has a place in Hood River. There are abundant examples of the destructive results of this tactic. It's hard to move from condemning someone's motivations on one issue to working side-by-side on another.

The fact is, we took extraordinary efforts to decide this question on relevant legal grounds. We applied the required legal standard. We're certainly not the group Walmart would have chosen to hear its case. Members of the council fought the earlier "Super Walmart" proposal. We're mostly small-business owners. One of us recently had to close a small retail store. Few of us shop at Walmart.

It has been suggested that we have caved to bullying by Walmart. Walmart may have political clout at the national level, but I can't imagine what threat they could level that would matter to us.

The closest I saw to bullying was Walmart's threat in the News not to pay for a traffic signal. Since they publicly acknowledged the signal is a requirement of the 1991 order, I'm happy to let our attorney deal with that one.

Whether Walmart ultimately gets to expand its store will be decided by the courts. We can continue to argue it but the courts are not likely to take notice. It's unfortunate that we've seen this destructive style of politics pop up in our community. It's time for us all to swallow hard and move on to issues where our spirited but respectful debate can build a stronger community.

Arthur Babitz is the mayor of the city of Hood River.

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