Don't Discount the Poudre

I was sitting at Avo's drinking coffee and staring at a blank sheet of paper when Seymour Sharpe arrived. "What do you think of the new Wal-Mart that people are writing letters about?" he asked.

"I don't like Wal-Mart: the crowded aisles, shelves packed to the ceilings and the annoying greeters, but that's just a personal preference which shouldn't affect public policy such as zoning."

"Maybe," said Seymour, "except public policy is just a collection of personal preferences. And in your case, it sounds like you're not going to shop there anyway."

"True," I said. "I'll drive the extra couple miles to K-Mart or Target because I prefer those stores."

"You could write about the developer massaging the numbers," said Seymour. "I mean, if you're going to drive south anyway, then a new superstore won't decrease traffic that much anyway."

I shrugged. "Everybody massages the numbers. There's no way any sane person can believe that a new shopping center will decrease traffic. This is a small town. I expect the people who enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart now will love the new, improved megastore, and if they live in the south, they'll be willing to drive the few extra miles to immerse themselves in that shopping experience."

"That's true," said Seymour, "but then you could write about how the city shouldn't make decisions on numbers that probably aren't true."

I shook my head. "The numbers are probably valid enough one-year projections and you can always blame other developments, new roads, or increased population if the projections don't turn out correctly. Besides, we all make choices based on vague promises. The one about being close to the river path so people can walk to the store cracks me up. People don't just drop in at a discount store for a pack of gum or tube of toothpaste. They stock up. No one strolling along the Poudre will think, 'Hey I need a toaster oven,' and cross acres of parking lot to get it. But the developer is just doing regular marketing hype: Buy this product and your kitchen floors will sparkle, your body won't smell, and your neighbors will be envious."

"Political hype is even better," said Seymour. "Vote for me and I'll take money from them and spend it on you."

"That gives me an idea," I said. "Zoning is a takings just like those EPA lawsuits about wetlands. I can write about how we shouldn't tell someone what they can put on their parcel."

Seymour laughed. "Two problems with that. One, the owner wants Wal-Mart. Two, 'takings' is just one side of the coin. There's also a 'givings' that occurs. Property values depend on external sources such as roads, views, and the neighboring properties. A Wal-Mart may decrease the value of a home next door, but will increase the value of an adjacent gas station. Property values is just another amalgam of personal preferences that zoning laws try to take into account."

"Well I don't like putting a big box along the river," I said. "It's one of the few unique aspects of Fort Collins that separates it from the Front Range mall. It might be too late to stop Wal-Mart because the planning board only considers certain types of facts. We need a vision of what makes Fort Collins unique. Perhaps we could expand Old Town along the river with one side having pedestrian-friendly shops and the other being a nature corridor. Anyplace on the plains can be bulldozed into a parking lot, but we can't construct a river, we can only protect and enhance it." I started writing.