Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Big box blowout

The London Free Press reports that, as promised, the city's planning committee held another public hearing today on the subject of a proposed site of a new Home Depot, north of Dundas Street and east of Clarke Road. The planning committee had approved a zoning change for the location to allow the development in December after a previous advertised public hearing in which no area merchants showed up. So why is the planning committee holding another one?

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. Public hearings permit city hall to invest its political and arbitrary authority over the use and enjoyment of private property with the appearance of disinterested arbitration — which begs the question, what kind of public input does the city expect to find? Arbitration over the question of use of private property that in no way objectively harms others' use and enjoyment of their property can only invite objections that are in no way objectively disinterested. In fact, the city can pretty much count on having no truly disinterested, laissez faire-minded individuals attending — the point of the exercise is inherently to invite complaints about unregulated property use. On the surface the practice of public hearings typically serves only to allow NIMBY activists to vent their "I got mine" prejudices and entrenched businesses to plead for a regulatory club to be brought against their competition. Ordinarily, one public hearing will suffice for the planning committee to cover its tracks, and if no objection is heard as was previously the case, the committee may feel free to impose no new obstruction to a free market in property use — as was the case back in December.

If council wanted to maintain an appearance of disinterest it would have followed the single-hearing procedure of most other applications. In this case, however, there was an overriding interest at stake for at least some councillors. From a particular soft socialist perspective, the applicant is not a typical merchant or developer but is rather a special sort that popularly requires some sort of regulatory censure precisely and only because it popularly invites abuse — Home Depot is a "big box," a pejorative in its own right these days. Coun. Joni Baechler argued that the process, while legal, was inadequate in this case:

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.
Hence the redoubling of efforts to provide an excuse to block development — because some councillors are not at all personally disinterested in the outcome of the application… and because they can.

For the sake of argument and anticipation of a process that should not be defended, objections to developments of this kind fall into the following basic categories, in no particular order:
  • We don't need another big box store.

    The inflation of "I" into "we" is a time-honoured device for conflating personal preferences with public interest, especially when the "I" wants something at the expense of "you" or "them." Similarly, "need" rhetorically supplants the word "want," which does not carry the same sort of popular cachet required to promote interventionist policy. In other words, the exponent of these rhetorical perversions simply does not "want" another big box store for anyone else — but he or she is empirically unequipped to determine the wants or needs of everyone else as a whole. Should a big box store succeed in drawing the uncoerced patronage of consumers, the objection is post facto rendered incorrect — however, he or she is promoting a proposition that if implemented cannot be disproven.

  • Home Depot uses substandard labour practices, sells cheap and shoddy merchandise made in sweatshops, encourages urban sprawl, and other variations on the "bad corporate citizen" model.

    Among the list of opponents to the application are the Unitarian Fellowship of London and "one citizen worried that the proposed development is not competition but 'corporate takeover.'" Objections such as these are unquestionably founded on an anti-capitalist ideology — taken to their logical conclusions, all businesses should be standardized by labour practice, merchandise, wages and prices… and by owner. If one generously takes these objections as sincere, specific-driven and unideological, their complaints are better served in courts of law and justice rather than in interference in arbitrary locational regulation processes — I think it would rather prove their arguments much better, should they actually have demonstrable arguments.

  • Big box stores like Home Depot drive other stores out of business.

    Frank Teahen, owner of the Home Hardware west of Clarke Rd. oppposes the application. The area is home not only to Teahan's business but also a Canadian Tire, a Rona, a TSC store and a Wal-Mart, all competitors to some aspects of Home Depot's business. Neary by competition, including 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, or whatever their particular desires are at the time. When council protects entrenched businesses through regulation, they are suggesting that consumers favour the city's central planning objectives over their own choices. Commendably, the "president of Canadian Tire Real Estate Corp. wrote he has no objection to a Home Depot store in what would amount to Canadian Tire's front yard."

  • Other area merchants made up their business plans according to existing zoning plans and built or expanded accordingly.

    This is an indictment of the planning process itself, implemented through zoning bylaws. Existing business investments in London were predicated on abiding by the same arbitrary and malleable regulatory processes that Home Depot is suffering — those investors have no right to expect that their own establishment alters the rules of the game for them as long as they suffer others to abide by existing rules. Long-term planning in London needs to be considered equally tentative based on the varying political climate of planning committees as long as businesses countenance local government's powers over their affairs and try to manipulate those powers for your own purposes. The government attends to particular private concerns only as long as it has political or financial incentives for doing so — only as long as a business can manage to keep feeding the government with one or the other is its day of reckoning as a loser in the game instead of a winner is forfended.