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2009-10-13
Powhatan, VA. Citizen Group Forms To Fight Wal-Mart Rezoning

On August 21, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart's cover was blown in Powhatan County,Virginia -- and the response from neighbors was predictable. Powhatan County has almost doubled its population since 1990. As of 2008, the population hovered around 28,000 people. The county has 273 square miles of Virginia countryside, with James River on its north, and the Appomattox on its south. Named after Pocahontas' father, Powhatan has a long history, which local officials like to say "is secure because of the interest of its citizens in restoration and preservation." But the county is also in a period of painful change due to its rapid growth. "Slowly but surely, Powhatan is undergoing a transformation," the official county website admits. "No longer can workers count on lifetime jobs with mainstay manufacturers, and the former banking hub is now more like a financial byway." Philip Morris until recently was the region's largest employer, but the Capital One Financial Corp is now the number one employer in the area. Many of the banking jobs have exited, but the county says it is working to attract high-tech manufacturing, and good-paying jobs. Into this transformation steps an incongruous player: Wal-Mart. In April of 2009, rumors began sweeping the county that Wal-Mart had its eye on Powhatan, and according to the newspaper Powhatan Today, the very shadow of a Wal-Mart "has sent an anxious hum" through the county. As far back as the fall of 2008 a traffic impact study along Route 60, west of Route 675 was being conducted for an unnamed, 170,000 s.f. retail center on nearly 54 acres of land. The land is not properly zoned, and will have to be rezoned by the county to allow the project. A piece of the property is zoned Residential Commercial, but another portion of the site is zoned Light Industrial -- and this piece will have to be changed. When rumors of a Wal-Mart began to circulate widely, the County Planner told Powhatan Today that he hadn't "seen anything with Wal-Mart's name on it." The size of the building, however, was a dead giveaway. But in late August, county officials were more forthcoming about the rumored project. The County's Administrator said that on August 18, 2009, a meeting between Wal-Mart and county officials had taken place. No one from the media was at the meeting. The Administrator said she told Wal-Mart to become visible, but Wal-Mart's lawyer said the giant retailer preferred to hold off until "everything is a done deal." Wal-Mart's lawyer told the newspaper, "there are still some things that need to fall into place and we don't need to get people stirred up for something that might not happen." Then he added, "We think it is going to happen." So people in Powhatan are definitely "stirred up," to use the retailer's verb. Area residents met with the County's Board of Supervisors, and one county resident told the Supervisors that "We want you to understand how important" the big box issue is "to the people of the county. Be forthcoming... keep citizens updated. The more transparent you are the better... Make the people part of the discussion sooner rather than later." Despite assurances from two supervisors that there would be a "full public process," the fact that a Wal-Mart project has been proceeding below radar for almost a year has many local residents upset. This week, Powhatan Today reports that the group Powhatan Grow Smart held its first public meeting on October 12th. Wal-Mart officially filed its plans for a zone change on October 1st. The retailer has asked the County to rezone 33.57 acres of a 53 acre lot in eastern Powhatan from residential commercial, commercial and light industrial to general commercial. If the County does not approve the rezoning, the project is dead. Powhatan Grow Smart (PGS) points out that a suburban big box footprint is incompatible with the county's comprehensive land use plan. The group says Wal-Mart is inharmonious with the plan's goal to "retain existing business," and with its focus on businesses "that are compatible with the rural character and overall quality of life... " The comprehensive plan states that desirable businesses would be "small to medium size [and] have a moderate land-use intensity... " "Somebody has to stand up and say we don't want this in our county, [the comprehensive plan] is what the citizens say" said a spokesman for PGS. "We don't want to see the Midlothian Turnpike extend out into Powhatan. We are not anti growth, but there are smart ways" to handle growth. "We want growth without big box." The group's spokesman acknowledged that fighting Wal-Mart was never easy, but said the battle was not pointless. "Don't give up," he was quoted as saying by Powhatan Today. "Others have beaten [Wal-Mart] and we can too."

What you can do: Powhatan Grow Smart says that regardless of what happens to the Wal-Mart proposal, the group is going to push for a 50,000 s.f. limit on the size of retail buildings. "Whether or not we get [Wal-Mart], we are going to suggest a cap on store [sizes]" to the board of supervisors, the group said. When the article appeared in the newspaper about Wal-Mart's proposal, one local reader commented, "I moved to Powhatan for a reason. I don't want to be around crappy box stores such as Wal-mart. I wanted to be in the country where I can go to a small store and get good old fashioned customer service by knowledgeable people. If I wanted to live in a well developed shopping area I would have moved to Richmond or Midlothian. While you may love having the convenience of a 'variety' store here, I dread having to deal with the traffic when there is one less than 20 miles. Also if you know anything about business, you can expect to see many of the small locally owned businesses here close because of Wal-Mart. Its what they do and I've seen it happen many times over with the various places I've lived... I don't shop at Wal-Mart because I dislike the way they do business and I believe the quality of the merchandise is subpar... I'd rather pay the extra in gas than give that money to a chain I have no respect for. In time Powhatan will no longer have that down home country feel. It will just be another town with a Wal-Mart." Readers are urged to email Robert Cosby, the Chairman of the Powhatan County, Virginia Board of Supervisors at District3@powhatanva.gov with the following message: "Dear Chairman Cosby, Now that Wal-Mart has applied for its massive rezoning plan, its time for the Supervisors to lead growth, instead of follow it. The parcel Wal-Mart wants is not properly zoned. You have the legal right to deny rezoning. There are also wetlands on the parcel that need to be protected. The scale of this project is simply incompatible with the rest of the surrounding built environment on Route 60 and 675. This proposed superstore is nearly three times the size of a football field. You have six Wal-Mart superstores within 22 miles, and most of the sales at any new store will come from existing merchants. Don't rezone this parcel. Promote 'restoration and preservation' in the county instead. You have your county Comprehensive Plan to back you up. This kind of suburban sprawl has no place in your small communities. I urge you to say No to rezoning, and make Wal-Mart fit into your vision of the county -- not the reverse."










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

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