The longer Wal-Mart has tried to build a superstore in Estero, Florida, the smaller their store has become. Their journey in this community has now dragged on more than six years. But ‘small’ is hardly the way to describe their lastest plan.
On August 10, 2004, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Hearing Examiner in Lee County Florida had turned down an appeal filed by Wal-Mart. The retailer was trying to build a 228,000 s.f. supercenter off Coconut Road in Estero. The store would be located on Route 41. Because of the significant amount of nearby residential property, Wal-Mart representatives said they would provide increased landscaping for the project, and give the store a “Mediterranean design” to blend in better with existing buildings. The company also said it would pay for a private access road for residents.
The local engineer pitching the project told residents: “Wal-Mart is an active community member. It acts as a good neighbor.” But many residents didn’t like the sound of a 4-foot earth and berm mound, plus a 6-foot high screening wall. Wal-Mart also offered to put their huge store 240 feet away from residential property, even though the town’s zoning code would have allowed them to move within 25 feet of residential property lines.
To the north of the proposed site is a housing development called The Vines. Wal-Mart promised these residents that the company would pick up the one-time cost of a gated access road. However, the on-going maintenance costs for the road would fall to homeowners. One resident of The Vines was quoted as saying: “Do you think that is fair, that we should have to pay to get into our property?”
The company had been seeking zoning approval to convert 3 parcels of land designated for smaller businesses, into parking lots to create enough room to handle the cars required by the county zoning code. In July of 2004, planners in Lee County, Florida turned thumbs down on Wal-Mart’s plans. Staffers cited overwhelming traffic on Route 41 as their reason for denial. The county staff report went to the Hearing Officer.
The county staff report said the highway would operate at a “level of service” F, as in failing, if the Wal-Mart were built. The LOS is calculated based on car delays at various points on the roadway.
Wal-Mart has been forced to work with county officials on the traffic, noise and appearance of their store. On September 28, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the County had complained that Route 41 might not get widened for at least another four years, and if the Wal-Mart was approved, it would make the current roadways fail — a violation of state growth laws that say roadways must be able to handle the increased traffic from a new project within three years of construction.
According to The Naples News, Wal-Mart had to either go to court to reverse the Hearing Officer’s denial, or start another zoning process again from scratch, which could take more than a year. “We want to sit back and look at everything before making a decision,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper after the Hearing Officer decision. The Hearing Officer said that changing the outparcels into parking was inconsistent with the zoning for the land that was approved in 1998. “A visual comparison of the proposed site plan and the approved Master Concept Plan clearly demonstrates there are significant differences between the two plans,” the decision stated.
The store on Coconut Road is one of two supercenters Wal-Mart wanted to build in Estero, angering many residents, who felt that two stores were two too many. Lee County’s director of Community Development, told the newspaper that the county was pleased with the hearing examiner’s decision, which rejected Wal-Mart’s argument that the real issue was the legality of using outparcels as parking.
In 2008, Wal-Mart was in the news for trying to get U.S. 41 reclassified to allow a new Wal-Mart to be built. Route 41 could be changed from a classification called “super-concurrency” to one called “concurrency.” If the road is scheduled for improvement within three years, then the proposed superstore can go forward. Super-concurrency means that Wal-Mart cannot begin construction until the widening of Route 41 begins.
Wal-Mart was pressing Lee County officials again, coming up with a new traffic study, and hoping to be back before the County’s Planning council by November of 2008, and then to the County Commissioners by the spring. Wal-Mart hoped to begin building the store by March of 2010. The city eventually approved a Wal-Mart superstore at 180,000 s.f., but that was not the end of the story.
According to the News-Press this week, Wal-Mart will be back in front of the Estero Community Planning Panel on November 22nd, with 30,000 s.f. shaved off the store, dropping the scale now to 150,000 s.f. — — 35% smaller than their original submission six years ago. Wal-Mart has added four ‘outparcels’ that have Estero officials concerned. The city has spent years developing an award-winning Community Plan, and it does not want this project to be incompatible with its architectural standards.
Wal-Mart has already agreed to a “Mediterranean style” architecture, and earth tone colors to disguise the big box store. The retailer was also asked to add a fountain and a lake. One city planning official told the newspaper “the parking lot will be beautiful.” After six years, it looks like the only further delay no will be the widening of Route 41 to six lanes — a project that is being paid for by the Florida taxpayers, not Wal-Mart.
The new Wal-Mart will increase Estero Boulevard traffic from 6,000 cars per day, to 30,000 car per day. The project also requires the state to take a few acres of land from an historic estate on the Estero River. Lee County Commissioners have refused to use county conservation money to buy the acreage, since it will lead to sprawl, not to conservation of land.
The Wal-Mart proposal is simply incompatible with the Master Plan for the land in question. Lee County officials said that, and the Hearing Officer affirmed it. Residents should always compare big box proposals to how the land is described — not just in the zoning code — but in the Comprehensive Land Use Plan as well.
Readers are urged to contact Tammy Hall, the Chairman of the Lee County Commissioners at [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear Chairman Hall, You’ve been on the Board of County Commissioners for the past six years — which is roughly the time in which Wal-Mart has been trying to build a superstore in Estero.
The Commissioners created the Smart Growth Department years ago. As part of the Smart Growth Initiative and its New Urbanism review, a concept of ‘mixed use’ was developed, which provides for housing and workplaces within relatively short walking distances from one another. The Wal-Mart is Estero is now 35% smaller than it was when first proposed in 2004 — but at 180,000 s.f. its still way too big. And it is certainly not compatible with your Smart Growth concepts.
Estero calls itself the ‘village with a vision,” but how does a big box store fit in with that vision? When this store comes up again for a planning review, I urge you to suggest that the shrinkage of this store is not finished. Ask them to come back in with a store no larger than 100,000 s.f. and eliminate the unnecessary outparcels. The existence of one huge store is enough development for that site.”