Delray Beach, FL. Wal-Mart Gets Slam-Dunked by Planning Board
There was no doubt about how the Planning and Zoning Board in Delray, Florida felt about Wal-Mart. The giant retailer's proposal to rezone land in Delray to pave the way for a 78,000 s.f. superstore didn't attract even one vote at this week's P&Z hearing. But the game isn't over.
On August 15, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that things were heating up in Delray. A proposed Wal-Mart in Delray Beach had the residents hot and bothered. No wonder. There are 20 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Delray Beach -- including a superstore 5 miles away in Boynton Beach. If residents don't like the Boynton Beach superstore, there are 7 other Wal-Mart superstores within 20 miles. In addition, there is an existing Wal-Mart discount store right in Delray Beach on South Military Trail. Delray Beach has more Wal-Mart's than pelicans.
In late April a confrontation broke out between Wal-Mart and neighbors in the Tropic Isle area of Delray. The very idea of a superstore juxtaposed with a tropic isle does seem incompatible.
Delray is known as the 'village by the sea.' Wal-Mart's proposal to convert an old Buick dealership into a 24 hour superstore would change that into the "Wal-Mart by the sea."
"It has everybody here in a state of fear," Kelli Freeman, president of the Tropic Bay Condominium Association, told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The Association is a community of retirees mostly, whose property abuts the Wal-Mart site. "We're merely 100 feet off the property line."
Picture a neighborhood of small homes with tropical plants and canals near the Intracoastal Waterway. Some are townhomes, and condos -- a small community unto itself. And now Wal-Mart wants in. The Tropic Isle residents don't want a huge superstore for a neighbor. They expressed their concerns that the superstore will bring more traffic and more crime to their community, as well as destroy the smaller-scale businesses that are more indigenous to the area. "It happens everywhere Wal-Mart goes," said Freeman.
Wal-Mart countered that the land they wanted is now an empty parking lot, so a superstore would make the neighborhood better. "It's going to help the community," a Wal-Mart public relations staffer said. "It's on Federal Highway, and it's an area that already has traffic." In other words -- it's already been degraded, so what's a little more of the same going to matter?
The neighbors were not convinced. Wal-Mart applied for a rezoning from automotive to general commercial. This zoning change gave residents a chance to mount a legal appeal against the project that could drag on for years. They're not about to let Wal-Mart trying pave over Paradise. But they may not have to go to court.
On August 16th, the residents got their chance to warm up the Planning and Zoning Board meeting. According to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, Kelli Freeman, charged that Wal-Mart was hoping to push their rezoning request through before the snowbirds return to their Delray homes. Many residents leave during the summer months to their homes in the north. The homeowners and condo owners in the Tropic Bay, Pelican Harbor, Tropic Harbor and Tropic Isle neighborhoods would return to a much-changed neighborhood.
If General Commercial rezoning is granted, opponents say the zone permits a very broad range of permissible uses, including many that are incompatible with surrounding residential uses. In contrast, the automotive zoning guidelines are much more limited to auto dealerships. Delray's zoning is in needed of updating -- but any proposals now would be too late to impact the Wal-Mart project, which is grandfathered.
The President of the Tropic Bay's Association, Ray Kempf, told the Sun-Sentinel that this huge project would create increased crime incidents, increased traffic congestion, increased noise pollution, and decreased residential real estate values.
"One of the Tropic Bay buildings is 128 feet away from the property lines of this proposed Wal-Mart building," Kempf noted. "Then there's the retention pond issue. The stakes are already in the ground right there, and we believe during a major storm or rainfall that area will flood into our neighborhoods."
To raise the temperature before the meeting, a group called Aurora's Voice marched to the Planning and Zoning Board hearing, "to publicly and peacefully express their opposition to this attempt by the world's largest retailer to extract more profits from our local economy," said a leader for the group.
Opponents formed a group called 'Delray First,' and retained a land use attorney, Michael Weiner. Kempf said local officials should realize that the proposed Wal-Mart is not a source of jobs or revenues for the city, because most of its sales will be transferred from existing merchants, including area grocery stores. Wal-Mart is a form of economic dislocation, not economic development.
But the main impact will be on local neighbors, because the scale of this project is simply incompatible with residential living. A Wal-Mart set aside in a commercial park is bad enough -- but with residential property abutting it, the project becomes a win/lose situation, with the homeowners losing.
The P&Z meeting turned into a tropical hurricane for Wal-Mart. The newspapers called it a 'serious setback,' but the retailer couldn't even must one vote in its 6-0 scrubbing before the Board. The hearing room was packed, loaded with neighbors who didn't want the store, and stayed for the entire 4 hour event.
As of today, the property Wal-Mart wants is still zoned for automotive use -- so all Wal-Mart can do is open up Walton's Used Car Lot.
What you can do: As in many localities, Wal-Mart now has the option to go over the P&Z Board's head, and take its case directly to the City Commission.
"I for one could not at this moment support this zoning change," Board member Alson Jacquet, was quoted as saying by the Sun-Sentinel. "What troubles me most with the decision is the flip-flopping we've done."
The city's planning staff had recommended the zoning change, but the Board refused to rubber stamp the staff opinion. This land has apparently been rezoned several times in the past. Neighbors near this parcel have had to put up with the uncertainty of what would end up being their neighbor. Other car dealers in the area have indicated interested in acquiring the Ralph Buick site.
The absurdity of this proposal is that Wal-Mart already has superstore #2789 on Old Boynton Beach Road. That store is less than 3 miles from another Delray Beach store on Military Trail.
Kelli Freeman told the Sun-Sentinel she is concerned about the negative impact another superstore will have on the character of her community. "A Wal-Mart on every corner is not going to be the answer," she complained.
In response to this pushback, Wal-Mart said it would step up its PR campaign with neighbors. "I'm not sure they (neighbors) have heard from Wal-Mart and we want them to hear from us and have a better sense of this Wal-Mart in this community," the Wal-Mart spokesman explained. "There's a real opportunity to discuss the value of what a store can bring."
Readers are urged to email Mayor "Woodie" McDuffie at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor McDuffie, You have served on the Delray Beach Planning and Zoning Board. You know that Wal-Mart needs a zoning change from automotive to general commercial. This a big change in intensity of use for this sensitive area. A Wal-Mart superstore will represent a huge change in use from a car dealership, in terms of traffic, noise, light, 24 hour operation, etc. It's like a night and day change for the Tropic Isle community.
To make matters worse -- your community is over-saturated with big box stores. There are 20 Wal-Mart's within 20 miles of Delray -- including the Boynton Beach superstore and the Military Trail store just minutes away.
Wal-Mart is not a form of economic development, because most of its sales will come from smaller merchants -- especially grocery stores. Municipal costs will go up, the value of residential properties nearby will go down, and neighbors will feel betrayed by city government. Every neighbor near this property will start lining up for a property tax abatement. In the end, you will see no added value from this store in terms of jobs or tax revenues.
There are many reasons to reject a rezoning. It is not an 'as-of-right' decision. You Planning and Zoning Board was right: this rezoning makes little sense, and is wildly unpopular in the community."
"I urge you to respect the work that your Planning and Zoning Board put into their review. Listen to what your residents and condo Associations are telling you. When Wal-Mart brings this project to the City Commission, you should take the lead in protecting the neighbors, and ask the retailer, 'What part of No didn't you understand?'"