Scaling big boxes back

| February 02, 2006

Sometimes the best way to keep something out is to lock the door before it tries to get in.

That’s the strategy of a group of Ravalli County businesspeople who want to prevent big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot from setting up shop in the Bitterroot Valley. A steering committee of the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce recently drafted and submitted a proposed zoning ordinance that, if approved, would limit the size of new retail structures in Ravalli County to 60,000 square feet. Such a restriction would effectively close the door on major big-box retailers, which typically occupy structures of 150,000 square feet or more. In Polson, anti-big-box forces are fighting Wal-Mart’s proposal for a 156,000-sqare-foot Supercenter to replace the measly 50,000-square-foot store it currently has there.

Russ Lawrence, co-owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, says the proposed ordinance is an attempt to deal with big boxes before they become an issue in the Bitterroot.

“It’s a lot easier to be proactive than to be fighting an existing proposal,” says Lawrence.

In addition to limiting new retail spaces to 60,000 square feet, the ordinance would also require developers of any proposed stores between 25,000 and 60,000 square feet to pay for an impact study.

The proposal was delivered to the Ravalli County Planning Department on Jan. 19, and maybe none too soon: The Ravalli Republic reported last week that Maxim Technologies, a Missoula consulting company, contacted Ravalli County environmental health officials about potential construction of an unspecified big-box store north of Hamilton.

In the meantime, Lawrence and others are hoping the county will seriously consider adopting the new zoning ordinance.

“This ordinance is not aimed at any one particular retailer, it applies to anyone who wants to do business in Ravalli County,” Lawrence says. “This is a scale that puts us all on an equal footing.”

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