There’s a healthy debate in our town (McMinnville, Oregon) concerning Big Box Stores and if or where they should be located.  We already have a WinCo, a Lowes, a Staples and a Walmart so the questions are really should we have more and where should they be.  They are good questions and ones that must eventually be discussed and decided by the local Planning Commission.

The range of opinion is broad, as you would suspect.  There is a faction that wants no more ‘big boxes’ and, in fact, would like to see those we have driven from the town.  These folks tend to be resistant to change and those who have what they want and don’t want to share it with others.  On the other side are those who believe that property owners should be free to do with their land as they wish.  If a farmer on the edge of town wants to sell 50 acres to Costco to put up a new outlet, he should be allowed to do so.

Many want to encourage the big stores to come to our town and would accommodate their needs because they think adding jobs to our economy is important.  Others want to keep them out because they see ‘big boxes’ killing off the small merchants.  These are worthy things to discuss.

However, much of the discussion is based around current zoning and a “lack of size restrictions” in the zoning laws.  Quite a few people want to see the city limit the size of the new buildings.  Some want that because they know if they restrict the size sufficiently, they will keep out the larger stores who have built business models around a certain size.  Others are worried about how the community will absorb a very large building when its occupant leaves (for better business opportunities, through bankruptcy, etc.).  They want to restrict both the size and location of every new building.

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It appears that a majority think that it is a good idea to have zoning laws, as we do, that separate industrial from commercial from residential from forest and from farm uses.  This is the common pattern throughout the U.S. these days.  I think it grew out of NIMBYism (“Not in my Back Yard”).  People didn’t want smoke stacks in their neighborhoods or used car lots for that matter or grocery stores open until 10:00 at night.  Most say that to have a sustainable, livable community, it requires that we separate these things.

I disagree and think that we have done a great deal of damage by controlling land use in this way.  One hundred years ago, the factory built housing for its employees, within walking distance of the factory.  And, they built a factory store as well, where folks could get most of what they needed, on foot.  Today with our islands of commercial and industrial and residential and agriculture and forest, it is a virtual requirement to own at least one car in order to get to work or to go shopping for daily needs.

It seems to me that the NIMBY crowd is often the same group that preaches “sustainable living” like high mileage cars, leaving a small carbon foot print, etc.  Do they not notice that their land use control has caused us to build more and more roads, drive more and more cars, and move goods further and further from their source.  How sustainable is that?  Time will tell.

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