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Monumental Battle

Wal-Mart controversy heats up again



Three years after the world's biggest retailer first approached the town of Monument about building a 186,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Superstore in the small community, controversy over the proposed store is heating up again.

Having run into difficulties with the town government the first time around, the global retail chain is now trying to arrange a deal with El Paso County that would allow the store to be built without the town's involvement.

But local critics say it's another sneaky attempt by Wal-Mart to build a store without helping to pay for road improvements that would be necessary if the store opens at its proposed location, near the interchange of Interstate 25 and Baptist Road -- just nine minutes away from another superstore in Colorado Springs near the Chapel Hills Mall.

Moreover, placing the store outside town limits will lead to "the killing of the Monument tax base," predicts John Heiser, a county planning commissioner who leads the opposition to the store.

Getting things done

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., first approached Monument officials in 1999 with a plan to annex the proposed store location into the town, which would give the store access to water and sewer service. But the plan ran into resistance from local residents and town officials who felt Wal-Mart wasn't offering to pay its fair share of necessary improvements to Baptist Road.

County planners estimate that the store would lead to an increase of 12,000 vehicle trips per day on the road -- double the current volume.

Wal-Mart backed out of the deal in 2000 and has since been looking for another way to get the store built. Last month, the chain filed an application with the El Paso County Planning Department, asking for approval of a new plan.

Under the new plan, the store would be built in the same location, but without annexing the land into Monument. Instead, the store would contract for water and sewer service from the Triview Metropolitan District, a special taxing jurisdiction that provides public-works services to the southeastern part of Monument.

And rather than paying the 3-percent sales tax that would be required if the store were located inside town limits, Wal-Mart plans to assess itself a 3-percent sales "fee." Half of that money would go to Triview, while the other half would go to a "Public Improvement District," a nonprofit entity set up to pay for a share of local road improvements.

In negotiations

Wal-Mart is currently negotiating with Triview, the county administration and other area developers about who would be responsible for what in terms of road improvements.

John Bisio, a Wal-Mart spokesman, says the deal will benefit all parties involved by expediting the road work.

"You're probably looking at some road improvements, some infrastructure improvements, that are necessary with or without a Wal-Mart," Bisio said. "Now, if it's Wal-Mart business that's going to in essence pay for those improvements -- something that would benefit not just Wal-Mart customers, but motorists in that area -- I don't see why that's such a bad thing."

Ron Simpson, the manager of the Triview district, agrees. "This is one way to get things done," he said.

Without commercial developments such as the Wal-Mart store, the tax burden to improve roads in the area will fall on local homeowners, Simpson argues.

Heiser, meanwhile, says the real loser will be the Town of Monument.

"In essence," he said, "what's happening here is sales-tax revenue that should be going to the town of Monument is being diverted" to pay for the road improvements. In other words, Wal-Mart won't have to pay for any of the road workout of its own pockets, Heiser notes.

Al Norman, a Massachusetts activist who leads a national movement against sprawl, called the deal a typical Wal-Mart ploy to secure "public welfare."

"Whether it's direct or indirect, it's a form of subsidy," Norman said in a telephone interview. "If Wal-Mart wants to locate in an area that requires necessary site development to happen, let them pay for it. I mean, this company made $6 billion in profits last year -- why do they need to ask Colorado taxpayers to forgo a penny?"

Killing the town budget

Not only will the town of Monument forgo the sales tax from Wal-Mart, Heiser argues -- existing sales-tax revenue will also drop as Wal-Mart siphons off customers from businesses within the town.

Town officials, Heiser argues, "should be fighting this tooth and nail. Here's a project that's going to kill the town budget."

But Monument's mayor, Betty Konarski, downplays Heiser's doom-and-gloom predictions. The area's population is growing rapidly and can probably support additional business in the long term, including a Wal-Mart store, she argues.

Although Monument will lose out on sales taxes from the store itself, there's little the town can do about that at this point, Konarski says. The town has submitted comments to the county Planning Department expressing concerns about traffic and drainage impacts, but it won't come out for or against the proposal, she predicts.

Bisio says he believes the Wal-Mart store will actually be good for other local businesses. People who now travel to Colorado Springs or Castle Rock to shop at Wal-Mart would be able to spend their money locally, he notes.

"I think our store would provide more of a draw, or even give people one less reason to leave Monument or the Monument area to shop," Bisio said. "I think it would serve as something of a magnet or even catalyst for other businesses."

Norman disputes that notion. "The only magnetism is to their store," he said of Wal-Mart. "Other merchants don't see a benefit, because Wal-Mart is promoting one-stop shopping."

Cramming it in

County planners, meanwhile, have their own concerns about the proposal.

"The killer issues are land-use compatibility and traffic," said Assistant County Planning Director Carl Schueler, who is handling Wal-Mart's application.

Local roads currently can't handle the anticipated traffic increase, and the site itself is not zoned for intensive commercial use. The site is also bordered by rural residential areas, which would require the development to include buffers.

The store would have to be "shoe-horned into the site," Schueler said.

Moreover, the county's comprehensive plan for the area states that large commercial developments should be annexed into local towns, in part because the towns need the sales-tax revenues.

Schueler anticipates the application won't go before the county Planning Commission until January at the earliest. He says he can't yet predict whether planning staff will recommend approval or denial. "It's going to be tough."

Even if the Planning Commission were to reject the proposal, the developer-friendly Board of County Commissioners might overturn the decision, predicts Heiser, who says he would abstain from voting on the measure because of his own personal involvement.

Heiser speculated the county might view the proposed store as beneficial because it will generate county sales taxes whether it's inside or outside town limits, and because it might speed up work on Baptist Road.

Commission Chairman Tom Huffman says he has not yet had extensive discussions with any of the parties involved.

"Whenever it comes to land-use issues, I try hard not to form an opinion until I hear the actual testimony," Huffman said.

Commissioner Duncan Bremer, who represents the Monument area, did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment.

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