Anti-sprawl activist Stacy Mitchell urges size cap for big boxes

Stacy MitchellA 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.


Legislation to close these loopholes has been on the agenda at the State House every year, but attracted little interest. I thought that some passed this year, but got the guv's veto. This is the link & I'm still somewhat unclear on the topic. The Poverty Institute (R.I.C.) has been pushing for this for years, but the Chamber of Commerce & others (like Republicans & the Guv) do not like ANY restriction on big business. - surprise, surprise. It would seem that since the Leg's budget passed these loopholes are closed, but check with legislators.
You've got to keep an eye on your them & what's happening at the State House.

I saw a member of Preserve Portsmouth making a video recording of the session for Cox local access broadcast. Hopefully, the recording came out OK. Keep an eye on the Channel 17 schedule station to see when it will appear on Channel 18. If you missed it, it was exceptionally informative.

I have one small criticism on Mr. McDaid's coverage of the event, and that is the reference to "activist Stacey Mitchell." The term "activist" in the minds of many conjures up images of wacko, tree-hugger, divorced from reality, protest in the street types. There was absolutely nothing about Ms. Mitchell that reflected that. She was very professional, extremely well informed (she was even aware of recent laws enacted in neighboring Bristol), and founded her positions on good hard scientifically valid studies and data. I would call her more of a policy analyst than an activist.

Hi, Lije...
Understand exactly what you mean, and yeah, I agree that's an unfortunate association with "activist." I was going for the sense of someone who goes out into communities and makes change happen — as she described in her hometown — rather than an academic or a consultant. She did display an enormous fact base, but she was clearly using it to motivate action. She came on a lot more like Al Gore than Emmett Grogan.

Wish we had a good word for that which our military-entertainment-complex masters hadn't co-opted. Your point is well taken.


Aw, c'mon, John. You give up too easily. The company which she works for & under whose auspices she wrote the book, works for activism (check their site). She is constantly intro'd as an activist & has never said, 'Nay."
With all due respect, anyone who characterizes "activists" as does the commenter, needs to get out more often. I know more than a few policy wonks who are also activists. They dress well, and I've never actually seen them hug trees (although what they do in the privacy of their own yard is up to them).

Hi, Eileen...
I agree with you too — and I'm not just being a flip-flopping politician-type. While I agree that Ms. Mitchell is clearly an activist, I recognize the risk in using that label. It gives (fill in name of developer/corporation flack/wacko blogger) the opening to say, oh, those Preserve Portsmouth people are bringing in outside agitators. I mean, hell, we had one of our own freaking Economic Development Committee lob similar charges at the moratorium meeting.

Her message deserves to be treated seriously, and I don't want to allow people to blow it off by thinking she was some dope-fiend hippie with a stick of dynamite and Che Guevara beret.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Have I waffled enough now? Yeah. Sigh.


It's a fair point. "Activists", self-styled or otherwise, are more often than not rational and educated. I was commenting on the fact that the term is nonetheless used to characterize as "radical", i.e. to be dismissed, those who stir the mainstream pot.

And, I really do need to get out more often.

By the way -- I have actually hugged a tree. You have no idea how hard it is to get red oak sap out of a white linen shirt.

I'm still laughing.
When I was a kid & there was no such thing as bug spray, I was always covered with bites. My dad finally told me that if I wanted the bites on my back (or anywhere else) scratched, I should try one of the pine trees around.
Eureka! It was heavenly!
However, he neglected to tell me to make sure that my body part was fully covered. That darned sap was just as bad as the bites!