Standing up for Wal-Mart 

The battle over a proposed 153,658-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter outside of Hamilton, thinly veiled as a debate over temporary zoning that restricts retail store sizes in the Bitterroot, just got supersized.

Ravalli County filed suit June 14 against Dallas Erickson, best known for his perpetual anti-obscenity crusades, and Citizens for Economic Opportunity (CEO) over their recent petition to overturn the interim zoning ordinance county commissioners enacted in April.

The zoning placed a 60,000-square-foot cap on stores in the county and also set forth development standards for stores between 25,000 and 60,000 square feet in an attempt to rein in unchecked growth while the county develops comprehensive, permanent standards.

In response to the move that Erickson says “goes totally against free enterprise,” CEO began gathering signatures for a referendum petition to suspend the zoning ordinance. Though 4,327 signatures are required to place the question on the ballot, CEO—with the help of Wal-Mart, which donated money, mailing costs and its database of county addresses—spent less than two weeks gathering an estimated 6,500 signatures, which the county is still working to verify.

Ravalli’s lawsuit questions whether the petition effort can suspend the county’s temporary zoning until the election, which would likely nullify its impact, given that Wal-Mart could proceed with its plans in the meantime.

“It seems clear that this issue should be submitted to a vote…if sufficient signatures are verified,” the county’s complaint says. “However, if [the temporary zoning] is suspended until the next general election, large scale development will be allowed to proceed unchecked in the interim period.”

Erickson says he supports the county’s efforts to impose standards on development, but not a size cap, because that would keep Wal-Mart out of town altogether.

“You’re taking [locals’] right away to shop in town and to shop at Wal-Mart. I think there’s no justification for it,” Erickson says.

Asked whether the megastore could choose instead to follow the size regulation just like other standards such as landscaping requirements, Erickson says: “They could comply, but why should they have to? There’s no other reason than to protect the small businesses.”

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