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2008-01-24
Duluth, GA. Wal-Mart’s Just Another Brick In the WAL

Wal-Mart has succeeding in wearing down opponents in a small Georgia community. It took them only six months, two lawsuits, and some bricks, to win. Sprawl-Busters first wrote about Duluth, Georgia in July of 2007. Wal-Mart's proposal to build a store in this community stirred up controversy from the start. By October 29, 2007 the rancor had reached the stage where the landowner who stands to make millions of dollars by selling his 27 acre parcel to Wal-Mart for a 176,305 s.f. supercenter, had sued the city over their moratorum on big box stores. Jack Bandy, who owns the parcel Wal-Mart wants, had his friend, the former Governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes, file the suit in Gwinnett Superior Court, trying to invalidate the moratorium. This past week, the landowner also took his case to the Duluth Zoning Board of Appeals, trying to get that board to overrule the decision of the city's Planning Director. Wal-Mart applied for a building permit in August, but was turned down by Shelley Stiebling, who was the city's Planning Director at the time. She cited Duluth's six-month moratorium on large-scale buildings. The landowner appealed. But the Duluth ZBA backed its Planning Director, and voted unanimously to deny Wal-Mart's appeal. "I'm not surprised; I'm disappointed," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the time. After the ZBA vote, the City Attorney announced that the zoning board also was being sued by Bandy, who now has two legal actions pending against the city. In this second suit, he is relying on legal guidance from former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. Bandy's new suit was filed against the Zoning Board of Appeals and each of its members; the city's new director of planning; and the city of Duluth. It appeals the rulings the zoning board made in October, when the ZBA agreed with local residents that Stiebling had exceeded her legal authority when she approved redesigns to Wal-Mart's planned Supercenter. Bandy claimed that the ZBA made some errors when it made its decision. The landowner said the residents who appealed to the ZBA did not have legal "standing" to do so -- which means they do not meet the legal criteria to file an appeal as injured parties. Bandy also says the rejection of Wal-Mart's designs were arbitrary and capricious." Residents of Duluth and city officials have made it very clear that they don't want this Wal-Mart, and they passed a moratorium to be able to come up with new zoning rules to better protect local property owners. Instead of respecting that sentiment, and withdrawing, the landowner pulled out the big political guns by hiring a former Governor to plead his case. When millions of dollars in profits hang in the balance, its not surprising that a landowner would file lawsuit on top of lawsuit to get his way. And this week, it looks like that strategy worked. The Journal-Constitution reports that last night the ZBA voted for a series of variances to allow the store to be built on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. The last remaining hurdle is now over what kind of material will be used on the building's façade. Duluth officials are insisting that the new store fit into the "big box ordinance" that the city passed last month. That ordinance requires large retail buildings to be varied in shape and be made of real brick, stone or glass. The citizen's group fighting this project for the past six months, Smart Growth Gwinnett, seemed resigned to accept the new store. Their main pitch at last night's meeting seemed to be: fight for the brick. "We -- Smart Growth Gwinnett -- don't have an engineer in training or an engineer intern," a Smart Growth leader was quoted by the newspaper as saying. "But we know that the side of Wal-Mart will be visible, and if it is, we ask that it have real brick."

What you can do: All Wal-Mart has to do now is give their store 2 facades made out of real brick. The landowner's lawyer was the second happiest man in the room. "We're pleased that they essentially approved everything," said former Gov. Roy Barnes. But even with a victory, he still kept pushing. "We'll just have to see what the story is on the brick," he added. The former Governor would not commit to dropping the two lawsuits that obviously scared local officials. When asked by the Journal if the landowner would dismiss his lawsuits, the Governor said, "Can't say. It depends on the cost of the bricks. It's possible." Despite the fact that the city passed a new ordinance in December that requires such things as a "community impact statement," to look at "the economic impact of the project on local businesses and residents, including number and types of jobs created, amount of local labor to be used, the amount, type and location of potential spin-off development, impact of changing land use patterns and potential for development pressure on surrounding neighborhoods," the Wal-Mart debate came down to a pile of bricks. The ordinance sets no limit on the size of buildings, but is mostly an architectural and design ordinance. Wal-Mart is saying it now wants to calculate what two brick facades will cost before its next move. The neighbors were left trying to put the best "façade" on the situation they could. Another Smart Growth spokesman said her group was "pleased" that they were able to force Wal-Mart to go with a brick exterior. "We're still trying to see what the result is after all the changes are made before we can see what it means," Smart Growth noted. During the hearing, Wal-Mart tried to get local officials to accept Quik Brik as the solution for their façade. But a representative of the clay industry complained that 'real clay brick' was a much better choice when it comes to "looks and legacy." Neighbors will find out soon enough, because their legacy is going to be looking at a brick wall for at least the next 15 years before Wal-Mart abandons the building. Readers are urged to email Duluth Mayor Shirley Fanning-Lasseter at slasseter@duluthga.net with the following message: "It's sad that the city sold out residents over a pile of bricks for a Wal-Mart. Perhaps its time to revisit your new big box ordinance and really protect neighbors by putting in place a 75,000 square foot cap on retail buildings. Nobody wants Quik Brik -- but a real brick Wal-Mart is still going to increase your crime, drive out local merchants, tie up your roadways, and bring you no new jobs. It looks like legal pressure from the former Governor has been strong enough to pierce even bricks."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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