Is Walmart a Good Neighbor? | Fairfield Superstore Fails to Implement Green Features

Patrick Kessel spent over $17,000 to install a dry creek bed on his land across from the Walmart superstore in Fairfield to help mitigate erosion caused by the additional runoff.

W HEN PATRICK Kessel found out several years ago that Walmart would be building a superstore right next to his land and office in Fairfield, he got worried. With his land already showing signs of erosion due to larger-than-normal rainstorms, the prospect of acres of new concrete and roofing across the street could only mean one thing: a dangerous amount of runoff that might wash them away.

A Shaky Start

With that in mind the Kessels, who run the local Farm Bureau Insurance office, decided to talk to Walmart about installing a permeable or semi-permeable parking lot. They got together with rain-absorption expert Wayne Petersen, an Urban Conservationist at USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and encouraged Walmart officials to create bio-retention areas, plant trees, and install permeable pavement.

At public meetings held before the city of Fairfield granted Walmart a permit, many expressed their concerns about the environmental impact, as well as possible harm to local businesses. Speaking to local Sierra Group members, a city official reported that Walmart representatives would be open to including permeable pavement and bio-retention zones that included trees, all of which would alleviate runoff. However, Patrick Kessel was disappointed to find that Walmart was not interested in spending any more money than was absolutely necessary, even in a town that honored and respected those that made special efforts to conserve the natural environment. 

Walmart officials did, however, offer the Kessels $5,000 to help mitigate their conservation costs. The Kessels declined the offer since it was impossible to tell at that time how extensive Walmart’s impact would be. Walmart later took the offer off the table, saying it was not their problem. They insisted they were building within the city code, which requires that a building should not increase the rate of flow into the watershed.

Walmart then chose a cheap but not ecologically sound solution, constructing a large retention basin to catch runoff from the facility. While it is legal to send excess runoff directly to our creeks and rivers, this practice is no longer favorably regarded, as it results in degradation of the landscape as well as massive soil erosion. Permeable pavement, on the other hand, allows water to be gently absorbed, purifying it from pollutants at the same time. In the case of the Walmart property, excess runoff, after being collected in their retention basin, will flow directly into Indian Creek, which runs through Jefferson County Park, giving it little opportunity to be purified along the way.

Fairfield’s building codes presently do not take into consideration that our small town is beginning to grow into a small city. Cities larger than ours often have code that acknowledges that runoff from parking lots generally includes pollutants from vehicles, and thereby requires that a purification process be constructed as part of the facility.

Fairfield’s present code simply cannot deal with this level of development. It’s become clear that new laws must be added to prepare for our inevitable growth in a manner that is ecologically sound.

After assessing the situation, Patrick Kessel suggested that the city, along with Walmart, could help mitigate the cost of installing the dry creek bed he has built across his property for erosion reduction. The city declined to comment until after the completion of the superstore in order to accurately assess the impact.

Since the Kessels were advised by land experts that the erosion work had to be done during this past dry summer, they decided to pay for the work themselves, with the possibility of later reimbursement. They have finished the work, but plan to add more big rocks and landscaping. They have spent over $17,000.

We in Iowa do like to do business with a handshake—that’s one of Iowa’s great appeals. Some larger corporations like HyVee and Kum & Go do honor community requests, and in our town they went to large extents to be conservation-minded without written law requirement.

But Walmart does not have a special stake in any particular community. We must remember from this experience that, aside from the jobs they offer, Walmart’s agenda is to take our money out of town and give it to their stockholders. They will not honor “gentlemen’s agreements” but only follow the letter of our laws.

When the superstore is completed, where will you want to shop?

Let’s face it, the Farm Bureau and the Sierra Club do not always come out on the same side of environmental issues. But here, on a local level, where we are friends and neighbors living in the same space, both parties agree on this issue of land conservation. It’s time to update the city codes to deal with our town’s measured growth in a way that keeps our water and air clean. We want to hold out-of-town corporations to the local values of conservation that we possess.                            

Denyce Rusch has lived in Fairfield for 28 years and runs a business with her husband, Eric. She is a member of the local Leopold Group of the Sierra Club.