Exeter, PA. Citizens Celebrate Wal-Mart Withdrawal
In March of 2009, it looked like Wal-Mart was on its way to building a superstore in Exeter, Pennsylvania. Residents in this small borough, population roughly 6,000 people, had fought to prevent land from being rezoned for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The land Wal-Mart wanted was the site of a former mobile home park, and was zoned light industrial.
Residents formed a group called "Exeter First" to prevent the rezoning to commercial. The rezoning was critical to pave the way for a 153,000 s.f. supercenter on a 15.5 acre site. But roughly two years ago, the Exeter Planning Commission voted 2-1 to recommend to the Borough Council that the land be rezoned commercially.
Yet the road to construction was neither straight nor easy for Wal-Mart. On March 3, 2010, Wal-Mart received what The Citizen's Voice newspaper called a "potential knockout blow" when the Borough Council failed to adopt any motion to rezone land for the Wal-Mart. There were two ordinances before the Council, but when one councilor made a motion to reject the rezoning, there was silence: no one seconded it, so it died. Of the two motions Wal-Mart wanted -- neither one of them could get a second either, so the silence of Council members killed the rezoning -- but only temporarily. Because there was no vote at all, technically Wal-Mart could return and try again.
"It was a victory," said Exeter First's attorney said at the time. "The residents have been heard loud and clear." But the borough's attorney sounded a note of caution: "It was not defeated. So what can happen is it was basically tabled."
In early April, 2010 the Council opened the door for Wal-Mart when it rezoned the controversial site from light industrial to commercial, and asked Wal-Mart to come up with detailed site plans. The group Exeter First sued the borough after this vote, arguing that the meeting violated the state's "Sunshine" laws, because nine people were unable to fit into the packed chamber when the controversial ordinance passed. Their lawsuit was later dismissed.
But in the meantime, the Borough's Zoning Officer apparently took matters into his own hands, and sent a letter to Wal-Mart's lawyer on July 20, 2010, giving the retailer preliminary approval for their giant store. The Borough's attorney later clarified that the letter did not approve any permits. "There's a long road ahead of them," the borough's attorney said -- and he was more correct than he knew at the time.
According to the April 3, 2012 Citizen's Voice, Wal-Mart has announced that it was walking away from its proposal in Exeter. "We have decided to discontinue efforts to develop the store," explained Walmart Director of Community in an email to the newspaper. "We were unable to obtain all of the permits and approvals necessary to proceed in advance of a March 31, 2012, deadline that was contained in our agreement to purchase the properties. In particular, we did not obtain a (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) Highway Occupancy Permit, which was critical to moving forward with the project. We remain committed to serving the Exeter community."
Apparently the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation wanted major changes in the roadway design for the project at several intersections -- changes that would have cost Wal-Mart time and money. The state study recommended that two blocks of on-street parking in the downtown of neighboring Wyoming, Pennsylvania would have had to be eliminated. The Mayor of Wyoming said street reconfigurations could have cost Wal-Mart more than $2 million.
"I'm very upset," Exeter Borough Council President Denise Adams told the Times Leader newspaper upon hearing the news of Wal-Mart departure. "It's revenue for the school, it's revenue for the borough, it's jobs, it's a place to shop (that's been lost). It would have been a tremendous asset to the community."
Wal-Mart has told the media that they have no plans "at this time" for Exeter -- but local opponents know better, and the Wal-Mart watch continues...
What you can do: During one of Wal-Mart working sessions with the borough, one area resident turned to Wal-Mart's lawyer and said, "This is our community, not yours. I live here. You're going to go back to Philadelphia, the money's going to go to Arkansas, and we're going to be stuck with the problems."
Exeter First argued all along that the Borough needs to be in control of its future -- not the developer. "Wal-Mart doesn't get to zone the community, you do," said the opponent's lawyer. One resident summed up opponents objections to the store: "A big-box store doesn't belong in a small town. It will destroy what we have here."
When this project was first proposed, Exeter First said it was concerned "about traffic safety, traffic congestion, and water runoff." But those issues washed right over the Borough Council, and they didn't even maintain oversight over their own staff.
Readers are urged to call Borough President Denise Adams at (570) 654-3001 with this message:
The Borough Council now has the chance to put in place the tighter controls over large-scale projects as suggested by your own consultant, Mr. Varaly. You can limit size, appearance, hours of operation -- many things that would make all retail more compatible with small town life in your borough.
You have a nearby Wal-Mart in Pittston just minutes away, plus a superstore in Wilkes-Barre less than 7 miles away. More Wal-Marts are being built nearby. This project will add little or no economic value to your community, because it is already saturated with Wal-Marts. That means more market share taken from existing merchants -- and no new jobs.
The land in question had been light industrial since at least 1972, and you could have attracted better paying jobs by keeping the land industrially zoned, instead of 'down-zoning' it to commercial.
A small community of 6,000 people has no need for a superstore the size of three football fields. Take back control over this kind of project, and reign in sprawl before it engulfs your little community. Wal-Mart does not mean new jobs -- it simply drains existing jobs from your trade area.
Instead of being 'very upset,' it's time to get very busy and prevent this kind of project from ever dividing your community again."