A "poor as church mice" citizens group is at the beginning of a battle against the world's richest retailer that will culminate this fall with a ballot referendum by Sandy citizens.

Save Our Communities and Wal-Mart are kicking off campaigns in the near future to woo Sandy voters — the small group wants voters to reject a City Council zoning change that will allow large retailers to build at a former gravel pit at 9400 South and 1000 East — and Wal-Mart, the Boyer Co. and Gibbons Realty want the zoning change to stick.

Wal-Mart already has conducted a poll of registered voters in Sandy, asking — among other questions — whether the respondents planned on voting in the upcoming election, shopped at Wal-Mart and would be willing to make public statements supporting Wal-Mart.

"We did do a survey to gauge a lot of different issues and public opinions all over," said Ryan Horn, a spokesman for Wal-Mart. "It's a normal, regular part of doing business."

But the poll is an example of the funding discrepancies between Save Our Communities and Wal-Mart.

"If you thought about the money, if you truly begin thinking about that — which I don't — you might not" act, said Cynthia Long, a member of Save Our Communities. "You think, 'Oh well, there's no chance.' But we choose not to do that."

Horn wouldn't say if Wal-Mart has a budget or a projected spending limit for its campaign this fall. He only said that Wal-Mart knows it has employees "with stories to tell, and we would consider funding them in some way to tell that story. We'll have to see whether there are citizens or groups who come forward in Sandy to talk about the advantages to the city."

Even though Horn would not discuss a spending limit for the Sandy campaign, Wal-Mart has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaigns in other cities. In Flagstaff, Ariz., Wal-Mart spent between $200,000 and $400,000 this spring on its way to winning a 51 percent victory for larger square footage rules that permitted super centers. An ad campaign in Flagstaff promoting Wal-Mart's efforts likened the opposition to Nazi book burning and censorship; the Wal-Mart public relations executive responsible for the ad was forced to resign.

In 2004, voters in Inglewood, Calif., defeated a proposed super center that would have bypassed zoning and environmental requirements, even after the company spent an estimated $1 million on an ad campaign in the Los Angeles suburb.

Save Our Communities is seeking inexpensive ways to persuade voters to defeat the zoning change, especially given that the group has less than $1,000 in its bank account with 10 1/2 weeks until the referendum

"Does that mean that we will be running ads four times an hour on television?" Long said. "Absolutely not — that's no secret. I think that effective things don't always cost money."

The group will rely on loosely organized meetings, flier distribution and residents talking to neighbors about the zoning change.

"It's definitely grass roots without a lot of money — a lot of citizen labor," said Robyn Bagley, a member of Save Our Communities. "We're poor as church mice."

Save Our Communities has been fighting for more than a year to keep large retailers out of the former gravel pit. First, it opposed the zoning change by the Sandy City Council, which passed it last November. Then it collected signatures for a ballot referendum on the zoning change, but the city rejected those signatures and said the zoning change was not eligible for a general vote. Save Our Communities took its case to the Utah Supreme Court, which ruled July 1 that Sandy had to hold a referendum. The Boyer Co. has petitioned the court to rehear the case, but the court has not yet granted or rejected that petition.

Now, Save Our Communities is fighting the wording that Sandy City Attorney Walter Miller drafted for the referendum. Miller has said that he tried to draft impartial language that generally discussed what was at stake, but Save Our Communities has called the wording confusing and cryptic. The Supreme Court told Sandy and Save Our Communities that it will hear arguments about the referendum wording Aug. 31. The Sandy city recorder needs firm language by Oct. 1 in order to print and distribute ballots before the Nov. 8 election.

Three Sandy officials who supported the zoning change are seeking re-election this fall: Mayor Tom Dolan, who has been an outspoken advocate for the Boyer Co. development, and City Council members Scott Cowdell and Bryant Anderson, both of whom voted for the change. Horn said Wednesday that Wal-Mart has been pleased with the treatment it has received from Sandy but that it does not donate money to municipal election campaigns.

The Wal-Mart at the gravel pit would be a 200,000-square-foot super center — including groceries, clothes, tires and car oil changing. Horn said the company wants the gravel pit store to have an alpine design, similar to stores in Salt Lake City and a store in Taylorsville that opened Thursday.

Wal-Mart has 12 stores in Salt Lake County, but it is closing a store at 10425 S. State in Sandy and moving operations to a store in West Jordan.


E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com