Q: There’s an effort underway here in Tucson to place a measure on the ballot that would repeal a city ordinance limiting big-box development. How common is it for retail chains to use voter initiatives to try to clear the way for their projects? How often do they win these votes? – Resident of Tucson, Arizona
A: Dear Tucson,
Big-box retailers lost more than half of the local ballot measures decided by voters between 2000 and 2006, according to a new study. But the trends indicate that corporate retailers are spending more money on these campaigns as time goes by, making it harder for citizens groups to prevail.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, most big-box ballot measures were initiated by local civic and grassroots groups. But in the last few years, large retail chains and shopping center developers have been increasingly using ballot initiatives to gain approval for projects that have been rejected by city officials or to overturn local ordinances that restrict retail development.
They typically begin by hiring an army of paid signature gatherers to qualify the measure for the ballot and then go on to vastly outspend their grassroots opponents on advertising, direct mail, and other campaign tactics.
In Davis, California, for example, Target spent $300,000 on a campaign to overturn an ordinance limiting retail stores to 30,000 square feet, while a grassroots group, Don’t Big Box Davis, managed to raise only about $25,000. Target very narrowly won the vote.
Deep pockets give big-box retailers a formidable edge in these campaigns, prompting a growing number of people to call for laws that bar corporations from bankrolling local ballot initiatives.
But despite the spending imbalance, grassroots groups opposed to big-box stores still win many of these fights by running strong, well-crafted campaigns. In Inglewood, California, Wal-Mart spent over $1 million trying to persuade voters to relax local zoning restrictions, but the measure was defeated by a coalition of community groups. Similarly, a citizens group in Damariscotta, Maine, won voter support for a store size cap law, despite heavy campaigning by Wal-Mart.
Between 2000 and 2006, there were 67 local ballot measures dealing with big-box development, according to Direct Democracy and Land Use, a study written by Phyllis Myers, a community planning consultant and president of the Washington D.C.-based State Resource Strategies, and published by the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
About two-thirds dealt with development on a particular site; most of these referenda sought to overturn a decision by local officials to approve or reject a project. About one-third concerned broader policies, such as a store size cap law or economic impact review requirement.
In just over half of these ballot measures, voters came down on the side of limiting big-box development.
But such measures are coming before voters more often and more are being bankrolled by big retailers. Of the 67 ballot measures identified by the study, 36 occurred in 2005 and 2006. Big-box retailers spent heavily in many of these campaigns and won 20 of them.
Big Box Tool Kit