Breaking Down Big Box

Breaking Down Big Box

Using Big-Box Ordinances and Stormwater Ordinances to Reduce Runoff from Large Retail Developments

By Brent Denzin

Not only is big-box retail development spreading rapidly throughout the Midwest, so too is innovative stormwater activism. Some advocates are influencing exactly where and how big-box stores are locating by focusing on a relatively new pollutant of concern – stormwater.

When large-scale retail development comes to town, community members fall into two camps: for and against. Those against are concerned about social, economic and environmental impacts such as: threats to existing commercial centers, increasing noise and traffic, loss of a sense of community, loss of open space and farmland, habitat loss, wetland destruction, and increased stormwater pollution. As our communities change, we need tools to minimize the impacts of big-box retail development and keep our communities vibrant.We need to provide for retail establishments that serve the entire community.

MEA is making great strides, finding solutions that accommodate large retail development while helping communities clean our waters by addressing stormwater management. MEA’s Sustaining Communities Campaign, launched in September 2005, provides legal, organizing, and educational assistance to help people maximize their role in shaping development in the places they call home. The Big-Box Tool-kit: A Guide to Sustaining Communities, which includes information on Big-Box Ordinances and Construction Site Stormwater, is helping many communities in Wisconsin update their zoning ordinances to address big-box development and stormwater pollution.

While Midwest communities struggle with urban sprawl, federal and state regulators have struggled with how to best regulate and manage the largest threat to Wisconsin waters—STORMWATER. Bigbox developments are in a league of their own when it comes to stormwater—all because of the “BIG.” Most big-box stores occupy 20 to 30 acres of former open space, causing 16 times more stormwater, and preventing much needed groundwater infiltration. An average of 607,000 gallons of water will fall on a 25-acre big-box development during a one-inch rainstorm. Most of this stormwater will turn into runoff.With the addition of dirt, oil, grease, and metals added by cars and trucks, big-box developments become major sources of water pollution.

Regulating stormwater is complicated and complex. Stormwater must be addressed at the source— at the local level. The EPA and state agencies, like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), are using Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits to address long-term stormwater reduction. The permits are given to cities or municipalities and require reducing uncontrolled stormwater. Specifically, one water quality parameter, total suspended solids (TSS), must be reduced by 20% by 2008 and 40% by 2013. One of the pivotal components of the stormwater permit is that it gives the cities the responsibility and flexibility to meet these goals. Though many communities in the Midwest are not yet required by state or federal law to limit stormwater pollution, the pollution itself is still a grave concern. MEA realized the tremendous opportunity to help communities meet their permit requirements and to reduce stormwater pollution with local zoning regulations.

Monona, Wisconsin: Lessons Learned

In December, 2005 the city of Monona celebrated a minor victory when an innovative stormwater control was incorporated into a large-retail development. Attending meetings, engaging neighbors, seeking help from MEA, the dedicated citizens of Monona diligently pushed for a more creative and environmentally friendly Wal-mart. Dedicated citizens were active participants throughout the Wal-mart approval process, after months of debate, the City of Monona approved a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the site of a much smaller, vacant K-Mart store. Due to the lack of available land, the Wal-Mart Supercenter was forced to fit into a 14-acre plot of land, roughly half the size of their usual sites. Working with a local community group in Monona, MEA obtained the blueprints for the proposed Wal-Mart. These blueprints demonstrate the feasibility of underground parking at Wal-Mart Supercenters. The Wal-Mart in Monona is near completion, including underground parking. As a result, it occupies less land, reducing stormwater and decreasing its overall environmental impact.

Specifically, Monona demonstrated that it is possible to turn a 30-acre big-box development into 14-acre big-box development and dramatically reduce the amount of polluted runoff that we are sending down the river. More importantly, this design raises possibilities for “in-fill” development in existing, vacant commercial areas. This eliminates the need to shift our economic development to the edge of our cities and create new impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, paved surfaces, etc.). Residents are encouraging the City of Monona to expand upon its big-box ordinance to require a smaller footprint requirement for future developments. Hopefully, future ordinances will also include requirements for rain gardens, cisterns to collect and use stormwater, infiltration basins, and other key low impact development techniques (LID). These low impact development techniques can be applied to all future developments, regardless of their size. The lesson learned from Monona is that with creativity and dedication, we too can influence how our community grows.

Citizens Step Up in Hartford, Wisconsin

In Hartford,Wisconsin, advocates working at various levels of local and state government celebrated a slightly different success.The Monona Plan proved that it is indeed possible for large retail developments to reduce their overall environmental impact. Unfortunately, Hartford was not able to require a smaller footprint. However, all was not lost.

Upon review of a proposed Wal-mart Supercenter in their community, Hartford Citizens for Responsible Government (HCRG) discovered that the Supercenter was unnecessarily placed in a rural wetland area. The project proposed to pave over a wetland near the Rubicon River, which would need a wetland-fill permit from the Wisconsin DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wetland permits are generally reserved for projects that have no “practicable alternatives,” such as alternative designs or locations that would avoid wetland impacts. Though proven possible in Monona,Wal-Mart had passed-over a number of other available plots of land that were 14 acres or larger, located within the City of Hartford, claiming the “Supercenters required 25-30 acres of land.”

Not only was the wetland filling a concern, so too were the estimated environmental impacts of the large development project. HCRG filed formal comments with the two permitting agencies highlighting Wal-Mart’s ability to use underground parking to decrease the footprint and choose locations that avoid wetland areas, reduce stormwater, and preserve open spaces. HCRG did not stop there, next they conducted a media campaign using press releases, their website, and broad distribution of flyers to get the issue to Hartford’s family dinner tables. The blitz generated a flurry of concerned e-mails to the HCRG website. The multitude of comments and concerns about the negative environmental impacts of the proposed store from Hartford’s citizens peaked the Wisconsin DNR’s interest. The DNR scheduled a meeting with MEA and Wal-Mart to discuss all feasible LID techniques that could be used to eliminate stormwater pollution from the site. Based on the citizen input and the active participation of local advocates, the DNR sent Wal-mart back to the drawing board to address stormwater and wetland impacts. Now, before their wetland-fill permit is approved, Wal-Mart needs to include areas of porous pavement, intermittent bioswales, and rain gardens to catch downspout runoff. A recent review of the plans shows some improvements.

Hartford Activism at the Local Level: Holding Officials Accountable

True innovators, the HCRG, while working with the DNR, also addressed the proposed new development at the local government level. Working at the local level, HCRG community leaders and MEA drafted a letter to the Hartford City Council and Plan Commission describing the Supercenter’s expected stormwater impacts. The letter offered clear, practical steps the City representatives could take to address the threat. Underground parking, green roofs, and a smaller, more suitable building size for the area were key suggestions that could reduce the impact and allow the development to proceed. Unfortunately, City officials ignored the concerns expressed by their constituents. Residents have gathered hundreds of signatures to recall City officials that have repeatedly ignored calls for smaller businesses with low impact development designs.

The fate of the Hartford, Wisconsin, Wal-Mart has yet to be determined—pending a hearing on the zoning permit. Although the community’s fight for smart development is ongoing, the message is clear: Hartford cares about sprawl and stormwater pollution and expects its government officials to reflect these values. HCRG and MEA are hopeful that the wetland permit will be modified to eliminate any wetland impacts and City officials will start adopting ordinances to address future development.

HCRG’s experience in Hartford illustrates that as long as there is land available, without big-box ordinances, zoning restrictions and smart-growth tools in place large retail developments are likely to take the path of least resistance, often rejecting environmental, social, and economic needs of individual communities. Once again, it is up to us to dictate the paths that our communities take through this time of development and growth.

Across Wisconsin similar successes are a reminder of the power of local advocates and the many possibilities open to our communities. In Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, residents have asked their Plan Commission to amend their big-box ordinance to include a mandatory size cap as a means of preventing sprawling impervious surfaces. Additionally, the group is considering requiring underground parking as the standard for larger developments. Stoughton, Wisconsin , annexed land for a Wal-Mart Supercenter and will soon begin stormwater impact studies, as required in their big-box ordinance. Stoughton Forward, a community group organized to address smart growth, is requesting zero discharge (infiltrate all stormwater on-site) of stormwater from the planned Wal-mart Supercenter and future big-box stores.

Engaged citizens armed with MEA’s Tool-kit can help our Great Lakes communities reach our ultimate goals – sustainable communities, healthy environments, citizens engaged in local decision making, and cleaner lakes that define our Midwest heritage. MEA sees a day where size caps, impervious surface restrictions, and underground parking requirements are commonplace and integral parts of local zoning ordinances. One community at a time, dedicated advocates are making this a reality, driving change to make our lives better, the earth healthier, and our communities more vibrant.

Brent Denzin is an Attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc.
For more information on big-box ordinances and stormwater, visit Midwest Environmental Advocates’ Sustaining Communities Campaign website ( Brent may be reached at

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