Anti-sprawl activist Stacy Mitchell urges size cap for big boxes
A rapt audience of about 70 listened to activist Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle, as she brought her anti-megastore message to Portsmouth's Green Valley Country Club. The evening was sponsored by the group which successfully opposed Target, Preserve Portsmouth, and was attended by members of the Town Council, the EDC, Design Review Board, the Town Administrator, and members of the Planning Department.
Mitchell had three main points: citizens need to work at the state level to implement combined reporting and close tax loopholes that enable giant retail, craft land-use policies that support small-scale "Main Street" stores, and, most importantly, work actively to grow and support local businesses.
Cutting across all of these, said Mitchell, is an ecology issue. "Sprawl," she asserted, "Is ultimately the most serious environmental issue we face." Don't believe it? From 1990 to 2001, the number of driving miles logged for shopping grew by 40%, said Mitchell, three times as fast as for all other purposes. That's a boatload of greenhouse emissions. And once you drive to those mega-stores, the pollution just keeps coming. "The number one threat to lakes and rivers is polluted runoff," she said, talking about the grease and hydrocarbons from all those big boxen with their acres of impermeable parking. "No other type of land use creates as much pavement as big-box retail."
The first part of the problem is governmental. With local governments only too willing to give tax breaks in order to chase illusory jobs, chains like Wal-Mart benefit from billions in tax relief. And that's not counting what Mitchell called the "Geoffrey Loophole," where corporations set up a subsidiary in a tax-haven state, transfer intellectual property assets there, and then pay the subsidiary, decreasing the profits that show up on local books. At least in states like RI without combined reporting.
The second component, land use, generated a lot of questions from the audience, particularly around the issue of size caps. These are critical, said Mitchell, since large retailers use size strategically. "They come into the community and OWN the local retail," she said, aiming to crush competition "by flooding the market with excess capacity."
While she suggested that specific size caps need to be fine-tuned by locality, she offered a suggested range for Portsmouth of between 20-50K square feet. "That's bigger than existing stores, so it allows some room to expand. But it's still one-sixth the size of a Wal-Mart."
Can size caps sustain legal challenges? (a question of more than just academic interest in Portsmouth) "None have been overturned," said Mitchell. "Scale has been part of zoning since the beginning. This is just an extension of that authority."
Caps can keep mega-retail out, and they can create a positive environment for small stores, but ultimately, Mitchell argued, that's not enough. Communities need to actively entice and promote local entrepreneurs. "This is like organic produce was 15 years ago," she said, arguing for an education and public relations effort. She had numerous slides of other communities who had created 'buy local' campaigns.
A disciplined approach is required, said Mitchell. Communities need to do a market analysis to objectively determine what the available spending power is, and what goods and services the community really needs locally, followed up with a strategic plan to attract or develop those. Some ideas she suggested were business plan competitions, retail incubators, and even community-owned stores.
Critical to any of these is creating a culture of shopping locally, and that's a marketing effort. Simple things can make a big difference, she said, describing bumper stickers created by her local group in Portland, Maine. "It's difficult to park in a parking lot at Lowes," she said, with a "Buy Local: Keep Portland Independent" sticker on your car.
And no discussion of development would be complete without a descent into sewers. Replying to a question about the advisability of limiting development by restricting infrastructure, Mitchell acknowledged that in general, it makes sense not to "put that infrastructure in places where you don't want development."
But in response to a follow-up on the specifics of Portsmouth and the forces seeking to use anti-development rhetoric to confuse an environmental issue, she elaborated, "It's understandable that people who are concerned would use any tool. You can't blame them." However, she went on to say, "If this is what we don't want, then let's write rules about that and be straightforward and direct."
Which is all I tried to say at the recent Council meeting, but of course, she said it better. You can pick up a copy of Big Box Swindle, just out in trade paperback, at Island Books, if you didn't get a chance to hear her. Most articulate and persuasive. And I strongly suspect her comments about size caps are going to have traction with the folks from the Town leadership who were there.