The Kaua‘i County Council yesterday approved a bill to limit retail and wholesale stores to 75,000 square feet.
The decision came after most of the 11 speakers who showed up in the council chambers voiced opposition to the bill at the Historic County Building yesterday.
“This bill is protectionism, you can call it what you want,” said North Shore resident George Anderson.
While acknowledging more people spoke out against the bill than for it at yesterday’s meeting, the council said that stand doesn’t mirror the majority sentiment for the bill.
Councilmembers said they have fielded just as much support, if not more, for the bill from petitions, e-mails and meetings.
“I didn’t support the bill when it first came out,” councilman Mel Rapozo said of an initial bill proposed by Mayor Bryan Baptiste last fall, followed by a council version. “I thought we were overstepping our bounds. But since then, I did a lot of research.”
Council chairman Kaipo Asing and councilmembers JoAnn Yukimura, Jay Furfaro, Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho and Rapozo approved the bill.
Because they had prior commitments, councilmembers Ron Kouchi and Tim Bynum could not attend the meeting to vote.
The two, however, voiced support for the bill at a committee meeting last week, Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said.
The legislation will be sent to Baptiste for action.
The council’s action left Wal-Mart executives “disappointed,” Eric Berger, the regional director of public affairs for Wal-Mart in Seattle, Wash., said to The Garden Island yesterday.
“We think that this does not benefit consumers. But we remain committed to our customers in the community,” he said. “And we will continue to look for ways to continue to meet their needs.”
The Wal-Mart official said he believes the council voted against “what we feel is the majority of the members of the community. And now we will consider what our next options will be.”
Wal-Mart, however, is not prepared to move on any options, including legal action.
“In the Mainland, we have encountered various ordinances such as this, and ultimately, this serves to limit consumer choices, which we think is unfair to our customers,” Berger said.
That point was emphasized repeatedly to the council yesterday.
Janie Whitehead, manager of the Lihu‘e Wal-Mart store, said the company feels the bill is “anti-competitive, takes away consumer choice and will hurt everyone who struggles with Kaua‘i’s high cost of living.”
At the same time, she said Wal-Mart appreciated the kind words “many residents have had about our store during the discussion of our proposal.”
The bill restricts retail and wholesale stores to 75,000 square feet in resort, commercial and industrial areas.
The council has repeatedly said the bill does not target Wal-Mart, which proposed to convert its 119,000-square-foot store in Lihu‘e into a facility — all under one roof — of about 200,000 square feet. The store as it exists now opened more than a decade ago.
Kaua‘i resident Christina Gaines said she supported Wal-Mart’s expansion plans, adding that while KMart, Home Depot and Costco store opened with some “fuss” from critics, “there was never any legal way to stop them from coming.”
Market demands should dictate whether the supercenter becomes a reality, not government through legislation, both she and west Kaua‘i businessman Bruce Pleas said.
Rapozo likened the big box legislation to a council resolution establishing a moratorium on new resort zoning due to a glut of resorts.
If the council had let market demands dictate whether more resort units would be built, the county, he indicated, would have lost control over development.
And the same could happen with the size of big box stores had the current legislation not been proposed, he said.
“I think you are comparing apples and oranges,” Gaines said.
“I don’t think so,” Rapozo said.
With the bill passed, Harold Wallace, Alfred Sarmento, and his wife Darline, said lower-income residents and those on fixed incomes will not be able to buy groceries at cheaper prices than are now available.
“The bill is a tax on your citizenship,” Alfred Sarmento said.
The bill has nothing to do with protecting the rural lifestyle, but will protect long-established small businesses that don’t want to “retool” their business to remain competitive with Wal-Mart’s proposed supercenter store, Sarmento said.
Competition is good, as was the case when Costco opened last October and offered gas at low prices, forcing gasoline stations across the island to drop their prices, Wallace said.
In speaking for the bill, Norman Hashisaka said, “We really don’t need a great big store the size being proposed by the operator,” and urged the council approve the bill “for the good of the island.”
In explaining his rationale to support the bill, Rapozo said the big box stores, “regardless of the company,” will close down small mom-and-pop stores.
With the high price of gas and long travel time to Lihu‘e shops, residents can save money by shopping at neighborhood stores, he said.
While many spoke against the bill at one or two hearings, the council “can’t judge the perspective of the issue by who shows up at the meeting,” he added.
He said he has received more communication in support of the bill.
Echoing Anderson’s sentiment that the bill has polarized the community, Rapozo said he hopes “the conflict between critics and supporters of the bill will pass and hopes that people will be friends one day.
Iseri-Carvalho said the council is cognizant of the community’s feelings about the bill, but did its homework before making a tough decision.
“We probably read through thousands of documents before making an informed decision,” she said.
County officials looked through hundreds of petitions, e-mails and research material, and evaluated the information, Iseri-Carvalho said.
She said Wal-Mart supercenter stores can thrive in some Mainland communities because of the availability of space. But Kaua‘i is different, as “we are at capacity that’s finite.”
Even with the passage of the bill, she hopes that Wal-Mart will still consider building a supermarket.
In supporting the bill, Yukimura said whatever position residents took on it, they were interested in “having the best community possible.”
A controversy over the plan by Amfac to exceed the county’s four-story height limit for resort buildings at the old Waiohai Hotel in Po‘ipu years ago generated the same type of passion that has surfaced over the current bill, she said.
A lawsuit preserved the 48-foot height limit, and had the county allowed the high-rise buildings then,“there would have been no chance for low-rise” today, she said.
Yukimura said she thoroughly researched as well, and tried to make a sound decision that would bring about far-reaching benefits for future generations.
But she said the bill may not have done enough, as it doesn’t prevent commercial buildings of 75,000 square feet from going up in rural areas like Waimea or Princeville.