Thursday, December 22, 2005

Home Despot, you say?

The London Free Press reports that London city council backpedalled Monday on a previous planning committee approval of Home Depot's application to rezone land in East London for a new retail location. The purpose of the delay is to seek more input from area merchants "who say they'll be squeezed out by the big-box retailer." So what kind of input are they hoping to find?

Amendments to zoning bylaws require notices to be published in the London Free Press and sent out to nearby property owners advertising public meetings to be held in consultation with the planning committee before it makes its recommendation to city council, a sap to NIMBY-style political pressures. In the case of the Home Depot application, no area merchants showed up to the original public meeting.

But the process followed, while legal, was inadequate, Coun. Joni Baechler said. Rules require notices be sent only to property owners within 400 feet.

That's not enough for a big-box store that can drive others out of business, a phenomenon some researchers have dubbed the "kill rate," Baechler said.
Either the "researchers" or Baechler are misinterpreting the findings. Big-box stores do not and cannot drive others out of business, at least not without the collusion of regulatory or legal interference by local governments. Other stores go out of business because consumers abandon them in favour of stores catering to the consumers' uncoerced preferences for quality, price or selection. Baechler's and council's agency-free world-view, implemented by the specific agency of the law, suggests that consumers favour city hall's central planning objectives over their own choices.

In any case, council's renewal and redoubling of efforts to find objections to the zoning amendment in the absence of any previous legally registered complaint demonstrates nothing more than it is council itself that has a vindictive anti-capitalist objection to free market competition. By actively seeking more input, council is in effect doing nothing other than inviting entrenched businesses to accede to the regulatory restraint of their competition, an unquestionably seductive appeal. In return, council gets to cover the exercise of its political and arbitrary authority over private property with an appearance of disinterested arbitration.

The Free Press article does cite one legitimate-sounding argument for seeking public input in the application process:
The Home Depot would be on land north of Dundas Street and south of the train tracks, east of Clarke Road. The land had been earmarked for a 100-unit subdivision by the city's official plan.

Other business relied on that plan, anticipated new homes and expanded stores, Coun. Fred Tranquilli said.
Nevertheless, this is only an indictment of the planning process itself, implemented through zoning bylaws. Investors in London should realize that their own already established businesses were founded on the sufferance of arbitrary political decisions at city hall, and any long-term planning should be considered similarly tentative.

Although I am ignoring his injunction against raising the subject of ideology, this excerpt from a Terence Corcoran article in the June 30, 2005 Financial Post is worth repeating. Corcoran was responding to Vancouver city council's decision to refuse Wal-Mart permission to build a store — like Wal-Mart, Home Depot is implicitly at least being "cursed for being a 'big box,' an epithet in itself these days."
What should really be under scrutiny in Vancouver, and across Canada, is why city governments have been given such sway over private property and private interests. Somewhere in the laws that give Vancouver city council its authority to shoot down Wal-Mart lies the big gun of urban power, the city's control over private property. The vehicles of control are extensive: zoning regulations, land use by-laws, licensing and other powers of a general and arbitrary nature.

The reach of cities, soon to be expanded in many provinces through new laws and tax revenues, are already extensive. They ban private smoking in private restaurants and close establishments down that don't comply. They prohibit safe pesticide use on private property based on trumped up fears of environmental hazard. Any popular concern can be converted into a city power trip. Anything in the area of health, safety and the environmental is a source of fresh initiatives. What people drive, where they live, what kind of homes they can build — few things are outside the ambit of some form of control by city officials. If they're not doing it yet, they're working on it.

[…] Fighting city hall on the grounds that it is run by anti-whatever ideologues is bound to be futile. The real ideological battle was lost long ago when private property rights were ceded to local government. It makes little sense to rant about the craven ideological pursuits of city council after they were given the keys to the city. By granting local governments such big powers, we turned them into battlegrounds where ideology and politics are the only basis for decision-making. [Cached version of the first page of the original article available.]