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Salmon Arm deadlocked over Wal-Mart

After an epic five-day public hearing, the City of Salmon Arm deadlocked over a proposal to build a Wal-Mart on the floodplain west of downtown.

On the first day of what was initially scheduled to be a three-day hearing, concerned citizens overflowed a 500-person downtown hotel conference room and spilled into the lobby, where an estimated 200 additional people listened through speakers. As that first evening wrapped up, not even a third of the presenters had been heard.

Before the Salmon Arm city council was a motion to amend both the community plan and a rezoning bylaw that would allow a big-box commercial developer – SmartCentres – to build a Wal-Mart on 60 acres of land on the edge of town.

Some individuals made a simple and cursory statement about their position on the amendments. But a greater number employed statistics, charts, photographs and PowerPoint to state their strong aversion to big-box store developments away from downtown and in close proximity to the lake.

“Approving this proposal would be very large and unrecoverable mistake”, said Bernd Hermanski, a local architect and a presenter who summed up the intent of those opposed.

There were fewer than 20 in favour (not including the development team of analysts, engineers and a biologist) to the 370,000-square-foot commercial development. Many of the proponents spoke to the intimation of the overwhelming opposition, and their desire for more low-priced shopping options, closer to town.

More presenters spoke to the risks to existing businesses, threats to the environment, precedent-setting urban sprawl, changing attitudes in mass commercialism and the aesthetics of a town with a gateway that is, as SmartCentre’s own analyst put it, like 1,000 others across Canada.

Some of those who wanted a Wal-Mart suggested a less controversial location would be better.

Adding intrigue to the issues was the fact that Councillor Marg Kentel was the real estate agent who sold the floodplain property to the developer bringing forward the Wal-Mart application. Kentel was excluded from the debate due to the potential conflict of interest.

Around 10 p.m. on Friday, Mayor Marty Bootsma impatiently urged presenters to stick to the motion on the floor, and allow council to make its final vote that night. While for some the hearing itself took on an aspect of sport or entertainment, everyone was eager to hear how they influenced the council and find out what would happen with the development proposal.

Each of elected officials read prepared statements on their position from the hearings. When the number was two in favour and two against, the tension of the past five evenings was drawn taut. Residents both for and against leaned forward in their seats with attention to every word spoken, trying to divine the sway of the speaker before he announced his official decision.

The motion was defeated when the total was a tie. With Kentel excluded from the vote, there were three for and three against.

SmartCentres has six months before they can approach council with the same proposal. By that time a new council will be elected, and it’s anticipated those running will make their position on this development very clear.

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