Hired guns

Other "big box" stores could come and go with impunity. But there was just something about Wal-Mart -- or so it seemed -- that got local citizen activists into a tizzy, drove them to paint signs, send out mailers, storm the local zoning commission, whatever it took to "Keep Wal-Mart out of our neighborhood."

What was it? Yes, the fluorescent lighting of the big, impersonal warehouse stores lacks much of the charm of the quaint, higher-priced mom-and-pop shops that often fail in the face of such competition. But if people really don't like cheaper groceries -- and almost everything else -- why are the Wal-Mart parking lots always full?

Now it turns out -- according to an investigative feature on the front page of the June 7 Wall Street Journal -- many of those "spontaneous" local protests may not have been so "spontaneous," after all.

In one case in Illinois, "A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the anti-development campaign," the Journal reported.

P. Michael Saint's outfit specializes in using political campaign tactics -- petition drives, phone banks, websites -- to build support for or against controversial projects, from oil refineries to landfills to shopping centers, depending on who's hired his guns, this time.

And his local managers generally operate in secret, using fake names, so local politicians are led to believe the opposition is grass-roots, local, spontaneous.

In reality, it often turns out to be competing grocery chains, including Safeway and Giant, footing the bill in an attempt to avoid having to compete with the lower-priced Wal-Mart grocery outlets, which generally operate nonunion. Mr. Saint, a former newspaper reporter, insists what his agents do is legal. That appears to be true. But this is also the kind of "crony capitalism" that gives free markets a bad name.

Who's really at fault, in the long run? The courts and the zoning commissions that create the devil's playground in which Mr. Saint's operatives are free to play, that's who.

Zoning was created to give residents some way to plan an orderly community. But once someone has located a site properly zoned for a commercial enterprise such as a grocery store, and bought the property, that should be that. What are local political bodies doing holding "votes" on whether to "allow" a perfectly legal use of someone else's property?

Why are those with secret plans to stymie free competition given this opportunity to keep such projects in legal limbo for years, costing developers and municipalities alike millions of dollars as they slog through the courts?

Those who challenge such projects -- when they're legal and proper on their face -- should have to pay full costs when they eventually lose.