Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes was clear in his Oct. 27 ruling that it’s voters, not he, who will determine whether big-box stores like Wal-Mart are allowed to move into the Bitterroot Valley.
On Nov. 7, Ravalli voters will decide whether to repeal a temporary zoning resolution that caps the size of retail stores at 60,000 square feet and establishes design standards for large projects. In April, Ravalli county commissioners responded to a swell of public interest by passing the cap shortly after Wal-Mart announced plans to build a 154,000-square-foot supercenter near Hamilton. In response, a new group called Citizens for Economic Opportunity (CEO) that’s opposed to the size cap collected nearly 7,000 petition signatures, more than enough to suspend the cap and place it on the ballot.
Judge Haynes entered the picture when Ravalli County Attorney George Corn filed suit against CEO to clarify whether the size cap was automatically suspended until voters could weigh in on it. That question was important, Corn said, because it could determine whether Wal-Mart’s building permit would be grandfathered in regardless of the size cap. What Judge Haynes ruled Oct. 27 is that the size cap was automatically suspended, leaving voters to be the “ultimate decision-makers.” He didn’t address whether Wal-Mart would thus be grandfathered in.
CEO founder Dallas Erickson hailed the decision as “great news,” while the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, which sided with the county in trying to protect the size cap it had lobbied for, pointed out that Wal-Mart has yet to obtain a number of other permits required for its project to go forward. Plus, they said, the size cap is about all future big-box stores and what form growth will take in the Bitterroot, not just about Wal-Mart.
Both sides claim to speak for the majority of public opinion in Ravalli County, and now—with lawsuits out of the way and the election looming—voters will get to show who’s right.