It was déjà vu all over again in Hamilton last week when hundreds of Bitterrooters gathered in the old Hamilton High School gym to say no to Wal-Mart. It was the same gym where more than 15 years ago hundreds of Bitterrooters met in a public effort to fight off K-Mart.
The difference between then and now is that this time around Bitterrooters were successful. For now, anyway.
The nearly three-hour meeting drew hundreds of people—estimates ranged from 750 to 1,500—and was officially billed as Ravalli County’s first zoning ordinance hearing. The ordinance in question, drafted by local business owners and approved by the county planning office only months earlier, called for limiting the size of retail stores to 60,000 square feet—roughly the size of the K-Mart on Hamilton’s north side—and for developing design standards.
Unofficially, however, it was all about Wal-Mart. The corporate behemoth had announced plans only the week before the hearing to build a 153,658 square foot “Supercenter” on Hamilton’s northern outskirts.
The crowd surprised itself before public testimony began when County Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott asked ordinance supporters to raise their hands. Probably 75 percent of the crowd did so, prompting a collective gasp of astonishment that so many Bitterrooters agreed on any one thing.
Pro and con speakers took to the microphone—the pros outnumbering the cons by three to one. The arguments, both in favor of Wal-Mart and opposed, were the same voiced by every other community in America facing the same issue.
Others, however, brushed aside Wal-Mart as just one piece of the bigger Bitterroot Valley planning puzzle. They took commissioners to task for doing nothing to implement zoning rules as allowed by a county-wide growth policy that was approved nearly 2-to-1 by voters in November 2004. One ordinance is not a plan, they said.
Commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance, but that’s unlikely to make Wal-Mart go away. By meeting’s end a Wal-Mart executive said the corporation would challenge the ordinance. The county has vowed to mount a vigorous defense.