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Tacoma: Council’s moratorium on big box stores may not affect Walmart

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Sep. 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
September 12, 2011 5:17 pm

Two weeks ago, when concerns flared that Walmart was eyeing the Elks property in Central Tacoma, the City Council quickly approved a six-month moratorium on big box retailers, in part to halt the project.

But the council’s temporary ban may not thwart Walmart’s plans after all – thanks to a state law that requires print publication of ordinances before they can take effect.

“There’s a question now of whether (the moratorium) applies or not,” Councilman Jake Fey said Friday.

The council approved its emergency moratorium ordinance to halt any new applications or permits for “retail establishments that exceed 65,000 square feet” on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

But legal publication of the new ordinance in the city’s newspaper of record didn’t occur until Thursday, Sept. 1.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, Walmart representatives officially submitted a development application for a 150,000-square-foot Super Center on the Tacoma Elks Lodge site.

Whether the city will seek to impose the terms of its big box ban on the Walmart proposal now appears to be a legal question squarely in the city’s court.

“That’s one of the things we are looking at while reviewing the application,” city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said Monday.

Neither City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli nor her top deputy, Bill Fosbre, returned phone calls Monday.

A spokesman for Walmart said Monday he expects the city to decide the issue this week.

“We are awaiting word from the city,” spokesman Steven Restivo said.

Amid community fears that a California developer was stealthily planning a Walmart store for the Elks property, several council members belatedly added the moratorium to the council’s agenda Aug. 30.

Supporters of the measure said it would give the city more time to study zoning and potential impacts that such developments can have on neighborhoods.

The next day, Walmart publicly declared its intent to build its largest store layout, a Super Center, on the Elks site at Union Avenue and South 23rd Street.

When Walmart representatives tried to submit the development application to the city’s land use department, staffers declined to accept it due to the moratorium.

“There was initially some confusion with staff when the paperwork was brought in,” McNair-Huff said.

After the matter was taken to the city attorney, the city ultimately accepted the application, McNair-Huff said.

“But whether it’s complete or valid is another question,” Fey added.

Staff is now reviewing the application “for completeness” and other issues, McNair-Huff said. Such reviews typically take 14 days, meaning the review could be done this week, he said.

As part of a state law meant to give the public advance notice about hearings and meeting agendas, local governments are required to publish texts of ordinances in an “official newspaper” to validate them.

“Promptly after adoption, the text of each ordinance or a summary of the content of each ordinance shall be published at least once in the city’s official newspaper,” the law states.

The morning after the council approved its big box store moratorium, the city clerk’s office contacted the Tacoma Daily Index – the city’s contracted paper of record for legal notices.

“Our standard for publication is to publish a summary in the (Tacoma Daily Index) and the full text on our website,” Wendy Fowler, acting city clerk, said in a recent e-mail. “We request publication the Wednesday morning immediately following the council meeting, and publication occurs on Thursday.”

In an age when reams of information can be published at the press of a button, the state law seems antiquated, some council members say.

A proposal backed by local cities and counties that sought to change the law died last legislative session. But the measure had nothing to do with ordinance validation. Rather, local governments claimed publication cost too much. City and counties instead wanted the option of posting public notices on their websites.

Community newspaper publishers countered local government web sites are no substitute for wider publication via newspapers, particularly in rural communities still largely dependent on print for news.

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