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Friday, January 5, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chelan Wal-Mart built, but will it ever open?

Seattle Times staff reporter

CHELAN — About two weeks from now, Wal-Mart was supposed to celebrate a grand opening here, ushering in a new era in retail shopping — and big changes for this scenic tourist town on the lake.

The shelves are still being stocked. Construction workers are gluing up trim and decking the food court in plastic plants. And some 200 new employees are ready to go to work.

But it's quite possible the big celebration is off. A county judge last week delivered a giant legal victory to a small group of local opponents of the 162,000-square-foot big-box behemoth, agreeing that the project violated the city's zoning rules.

Now they aren't just talking about stopping the grand opening. Some people are talking about tearing the whole thing down.

The dispute has also ignited a vigorous, sometimes bitter debate among neighbors in scenic Chelan, population 3,600, over the future of its character amid a changing economy. While the opponents are celebrating their rare victory as a David-vs.-Goliath battle to protect their way of life, a lot of people have been looking forward to all the amenities and low prices the world's largest retailer would offer.

"I have very mixed feelings on it," says Cindy Aston, who runs a greeting-card and gift shop downtown in what used to be her father's pharmacy.

"Is it going to hurt us? Yes, it will, businesswise. If I didn't think so, I'd be crazy. On the other hand, I think we could use a Wal-Mart."

Bait and switch?

Only a single blue tarp flapping on the exterior wall reveals that the Wal-Mart building on the outskirts of Chelan, where acres of apple orchards have been ripped up for subdivisions, isn't yet complete.

Opening day had been set for Jan. 22 when Chelan County Superior Court Judge Lesley A. Allan on Dec. 29 ruled that the project's building permits are invalid.

The judge sided with Defenders of Small Town Chelan, a group of locals and well-heeled Seattleites with second homes in town, in ruling that the store was inconsistent with the plan as originally approved by the city. The legal dispute revolves around whether the city's zoning for the 18-acre lot intended to limit construction to 50,000 square feet per acre, as Wal-Mart contends, or 50,000 for the entire project, as the opponents maintain.

"This was a bait-and-switch on the part of the city and Wal-Mart," said Kathy George, a Seattle lawyer who represents the opponents. "The city told the public this was going to be a nice business park with buildings up to 50,000 square feet, and that it would be good for jobs. It skated through the process with hardly any public concern. Years later, we get a 162,000-square-foot store."

For Laurel Jamtgaard, who heads the group that has managed to raise all of $15,000 for the cause, the issue is fundamentally about protecting the town's charm.

"It is just so out of scale for a small community," Jamtgaard said. "I'm totally empathetic to people trying to buy goods at lower prices and tired of driving to Wenatchee or Omak. But every small town doesn't have to have one of these stores. Part of living in a place like this is being further from that kind of convenience."

Now the group plans to ask the judge to send the permits back to the city, and yank the temporary occupancy permit Wal-Mart has been using to stock the store, hire employees and get ready for opening day.

No one here thinks it's likely the building will be torn down, but no one can say it won't, either. That wouldn't just cost the company millions. Near as anyone can tell, it would be a first in the long history of fights between communities and the Arkansas-based retailer.

Weighing options

Wal-Mart admits the judge's decision caught it by surprise, to say the least. The company had been continuing to work toward the big opening, with workers stocking shelves since early December under a temporary permit. It had assumed it would win the case, assured that the project was legal because the permits had been issued.

"We've never had anything like this happen before," said Jennifer Holder, a Wal-Mart public-affairs manager based in Seattle. "We are weighing our options. We'll be talking to the city and to our attorneys to figure out what we need to do to make the situation right."

Meanwhile, city officials are bristling at the ruling — and the assertions from Jamtgaard and others that the public was left out of the decision to allow Wal-Mart to come to town.

"The city's position is we have not erred, and we followed the city's laws and procedures to a T," said Dave Fonfara, the city administrator. The city is weighing whether to appeal, he said, but the next chapter in this story is "a matter of speculation."

A sore subject

The Wal-Mart issue clearly is about much more than zoning codes.

"I think it is going to divide the town," says Gene Kelly, owner of Kelly's, a hardware store that sells everything from shotguns to tricycles. It's the oldest business in town, family-run since 1958, and currently employs 20 people.

"There are some benefits to having it. But Wal-Mart is kind of a sore subject. Big is trying to swallow little. We have a lot of small shops that aren't going to survive."

A few doors down, at Cindy Aston's store, Aston's Cards and Etc., the stuffed head of a bull elk gazes down at the froufrou where her father's pharmacy counter used to be. Now it's a pink wall to complement an inventory of lacy, scented girlie things.

Aston, who serves on the local chamber of commerce, said she prides herself on small-town service that includes personally delivering cards to customers in the local nursing home so they may make their selections bedside, and even mailing the cards. But she also knows people can use the products Wal-Mart will offer. And the city can certainly use the jobs and the tax revenue.

"But those are the only things I can come up with that are good."

Amid all the debating and the legal wrangling, another group of locals has been hard at work, too.

Kevin Huff of Wenatchee was hired to work in the garden center, and has been busy helping to get the store ready for a grand opening he is certain will come.

If not in two weeks, he figures, then eventually.

"I'm not worried about it," Huff said.

"These things have a way of working out. Most people want the store."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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