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Cave Creek, AZ. Opponents Gather Signatures To Put Wal-Mart On The Ballot

Sprawl Busters – Sept. 20, 2009

Voters in Cave Creek, Arizona better fasten their seatbelts. Wal-Mart is going to hit them with a tsunami of cash designed to buy their votes. Residents are taking sides in preparation for a major ballot question on November 3rd, 2009 regarding a rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The giant retailer is opening up its corporate wallet to try to “buy” the vote.

An “astro-roots” group, the “Friends of Cave Creek,” has been formed to spend Wal-Mart’s money during the run-up to the election. On April 7, 2009 Sprawl-Busters reported that Cave Creek already has 10 Wal-Marts within 20 miles, half of which are superstores. There are two giant superstores just 12 and 13 miles away in Phoenix. The tiny town of Cave Creek had a 2007 population of 5,120—about one-tenth of what it takes to keep a Wal-Mart supercenter alive. But according to the Arizona Republic, Wal-Mart has not finished saturating this area with stores.

The retailer set up neighborhood meetings in Cave Creek in May, 2009 to let residents know of its plans for their proposed store, located on Carefree Highway. But resident response was anything but carefree. Opposition formed quickly to the project. Residents charge that the superstore will make traffic congestion at the busy intersection even worse, and take away from the town’s rural character. Cave Creek promotes itself as “the True Arizona” experience, with its “eclectic shopping, art galleries and the unrivaled beauty of the Sonoran Desert.” The town is trying to attract tourist dollars with its “rodeos, country and western dancing, museums, parks and nature preserves, hiking and biking and old mining tours.” But there is nothing very eclectic or beautiful about another big box Wal-Mart.

The retailer first had to get the zoning on its 20-acre property changed from residential to commercial. To create a supportive political climate, Wal-Mart had to soften up the voters with a few neighborhood meetings, the first of which took place in early May. “The meetings are to inform the community about what we’ve submitted,” a Wal-Mart spokesman explained. Wal-Mart seems to have a good lock on town officials, who expressed support before the project even reached the public hearing stage, because of misconceptions about the sales tax revenue they believe the town will gain.

Wal-Mart claims their supercenter will generate between 300 and 350 jobs. At 115,000 s.f., the project is smaller than the average footprint of a superstore. “We have supercenters that are 100,000 s.f.,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said, “and we have supercenters that are 220,000 s.f.” Wal-Mart has described the store’s architecture as “modernist,” and will paint the skin of the store with a “desert color palette,” according to The Republic. The town’s manager is already in Wal-Mart’s pocket too. He said Wal-Mart’s plan meets the town’s ordinances–even before the project has been before any town boards. “The store looks like it’s not a typical Wal-Mart store,” the Manager explained. “It’s going to be responsive to the Cave Creek environment and the Cave Creek lifestyle.” But at the May 6th hearing, some very unhappy residents of Cave Creek expressed their opposition to placing this store in their residential neighborhood. The land, after all, is residentially-zoned.

Cave Creek’s Town Council voted on June 15th to rezone the land. “The store is basically in front of my house," one neighbor was quoted as saying by the Arizona Republic. “The day the 24-hour superstore opens, my house is worthless.” This project has kicked up dust since Wal-Mart first tried to get the town’s General Plan amended in 2007. That proposal was later withdrawn by Wal-Mart as their growth plans changed. Then, in 2008, Wal-Mart bought the 20-acre property for a reported $8 million. Residents opposed to the project have openly asked why Wal-Mart is trying to rezone residential land, which was clearly not meant for commercial use, when there are parcels nearby already commercially zoned? “This type of rezoning is so anti Cave Creek values," Councilwoman Grace Meeth told The Republic. “What’s the big deal about leasing land when there is commercially-zoned land (nearby)?”

Shortly after the Town Council voted to rezone, a citizen’s group announced it would appeal the rezoning. A group called P.R.I.Z.E. (Protect Residential Integrity Zoning and Environment) organized a citizen’s referendum to overturn the Council decision to change the town’s General Plan to support the Wal-Mart. According to the Arizona Republic, the Town Council hearing was a standing-room-only crowd. Rebecca Lester, the then Chair of P.R.I.Z.E., said the voters will have a chance to decide Wal-Mart’s future by voting in the referendum. “I certainly want all of our neighbors and the community to have input in the process,” she told The Republic. P.R.I.Z.E. gathered sufficient signatures to place the referendum on the November 3rd ballot. The Cave Creek town clerk said a special election will cost the town between $8,000 and $10,000—far less than the town will have to pay in added police and fire costs if this project is approved.

P.R.I.Z.E. told Sprawl-Busters this week that their group is sponsoring a forum on October 4th to explain why a “NO” vote on Propositions 400 and 401 is critical. They also report that Wal-Mart has created the “Friends of Cave Creek” as the group through which the corporation will funnel its money for the campaign. “Under Cave Creek’s General Plan,” P.R.I.Z.E. explains, “commercial businesses are prohibited on residentially-zoned property. An amendment to Cave Creek’s General Plan is necessary to up-zone residentially-zoned property to general commercial zoning. Cave Creek Proposition 400 was a Major Amendment to Cave Creek’s General Plan as it changed the overlay to allow general commercial zoning on residential land. It is the more important of the two propositions as the General Plan dictates land use on any given piece of property. Cave Creek Proposition 401 was a rezoning of residential land to general commercial. This rezoning is contingent on the passage of Cave Creek Proposition 400. Cave Creek Propositions 400 and 401 have stayed the Town Council’s actions until after the Cave Creek election on November 3rd. The General Plan Amendment, Proposition 400, is the more important of the two propositions. Only a “No” vote on Proposition 400 will restore the private property rights of Cave Creek citizens.”

If residents of Cave Creek vote NO on both Propositions, the Wal-Mart project is dead, because the land will remain residentially zoned. As long as the rezoning in Proposition 400 is defeated, it doesn’t matter what happens to Proposition 401. P.R.I.Z.E. says that the Wal-Mart will be only 159 feet from homes. Wal-Mart has reportedly just pumped $23,000 into the Friends of Cave Creek (aka Friends of Wal-Mart) Political Action Group coffers. P.R.I.Z.E. does not have access to that kind of money. Wal-Mart believes that in a corporate democracy, the corporation with the most votes wins.

What You Can Do: Wal-Mart will spend like a drunken cowboy to win this November election. The major advantage they have over P.R.I.Z.E. is their unlimited access to corporate funds to influence voters. Giant corporations have all the rights of individual citizens, but they have more rights in the sense that they can vastly outspend their opponents. Wal-Mart has been known to spend more than half a million on such ballot questions. The “eclectic” desert lifestyle of Cave Creek does not seem a good fit with the suburban concrete image of a Wal-Mart superstore. The scale of the store, which will be bigger than two football fields, is definitely out of scale and uncharacteristic of a rural Arizona community of less than 5,200 people. Cave Creek can enjoy all the amenities of big city life being a suburb of Phoenix. Area groups, like the Black Mountain Conservancy and the Desert Foothills Land Trust are not likely to warm up to the idea of paving over 20 acres of land for suburban sprawl. Tourists who come to the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area to see the wildflowers, will not cheer the coming of yet another over-stuffed Wal-Mart.

Readers are urged to send a letter to the Sonoran News at: sonnews@aol.com, with a message similar to the following:

“To the Editor: Cave Creek doesn’t have the population base to support even a medium-sized Wal-Mart supercenter. Studies show that for every supercenter that opens, two other grocery stores close. The store being proposed for Cave Creek is bigger than two football fields. This is totally out of character with what the town describes as its eclectic, desert character. The land Wal-Mart wants is not correctly zoned. The people who live around this parcel bought their homes anticipating that this land would be used for residential purposes, and they made plans based on that land residential use. Wal-Mart is asking for not just a rezoning to commercial use–but rezoning for the largest commercial building in the history of tiny Cave Creek. This store will not be buffered in any way from surrounding land uses, and it will harm the residential value of any properties nearby. This is a wholly incompatible use dropped in the middle of other land uses, and will harm all of them. The only thing that will increase in Cave Creek will be traffic and crime. I urge you to reject the rezoning for this parcel. Vote NO on Proposition 400. Make companies like Wal-Mart find land that is already properly zoned, and will not harm other property owners. Cave Creek was under no legal obligation to change its General Plan or rezone land for any developer. Wal-Mart will now try to prove that in a corporate democracy, whoever spends the most money wins. Is Cave Creek for sale to the highest bidder? I hope the voters will tell Wal-Mart on November 3rd that your Cave Creek is not for sale.”

Readers can also contribute to the P.R.I.Z.E. campaign by sending a check to P.R.I.Z.E., c/o Dean Phillips, 5535 E. Olesen Rd, Cave Creek AZ 85331. Include with your check a note which has your name, address, employer and occupation. The group’s website is www.cavecreekprize.com. They also have a Twitter page twitter.com/CaveCreekPRIZE, and a blog: cavecreekprize.blogspot.com.

“We are David fighting Goliath,” P.R.I.Z.E. says. “We are just one in a long string of big box victims.”