There was a time when Wal-Mart could waltz into a small town, file papers for a zoning permit, and be ready for construction within three months. Now, because of citizen opposition, the process can drag on for three years or longer — with no guarantee of success. Such is the case in North Cornwall, Pennsylvania. In December, 2004: Wal-Mart submits plans to build supercenter on Cornwall Road. One year later, officials in North Cornwall Township gave the project a conditional use permit to build store. Two years after application, in December, 2006, local residents against the project filed an appeal of the conditional use permit and zoning permits the township gave Wal-Mart. Three years later, December, 2007, North Cornwall supervisors gave initial approval to Wal-Mart land development plan. This week, Lebanon County Judge John C. Tylwalk ruled against citizens trying to block the project. The Judge upheld the conditional use permit. Sprawl-Busters wrote about North Cornwall on June 10, 2007. We reported that lawyers for the Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) told the Lebanon Daily News that the township had failed to act in time to challenge a zoning decision that renders the land Wal-Mart needs to build as not properly zoned for retail uses. The 95 acres of land Wal-Mart eyed was rezoned to Commercial in 2003, but has now switched back to office/institutional and agricultural, according to the citizen’s group. “Our position is that we have a deemed approval, and the underlying zoning ordinance amendments never occurred,” the group told the Daily News. “Accordingly, at this time, the properties remain zoned office and institutional and agricultural.” CRG filed a legal challenge to zoning amendments adopted in 2003 by the township, which opened the Cornwall Road area to commercial development. When the land Wal-Mart now wants was rezoned four years ago, the township failed to comply with the legal notice, advertising and procedural requirements, rendering the zoning change null and void, CRG says. The group argues that the C2 General Commercial zoning is inappropriate for Cornwall Road, and should more appropriately be ‘Office & Institutional or a ‘Neighborhood Business District,’ which restricts building size, hours of operations and prohibits gas stations and other high traffic businesses from coming to Cornwall Road. The Judge’s ruling this week is not the final word. The court’s decision was limited to whether the permit granted by the township was proper. “Although we understand some citizens of this county question the necessity of a third Wal-Mart in Lebanon County, we are not asked to address this issue,” the Judge wrote. The lawyer for CRG, Dwight Yoder, told the Patriot News, “It’s one step in a long process.” The township’s lawyer told the newspaper the battles over Wal-Mart have not been good for North Cornwall. “My personal belief is the entire Wal-Mart saga has been bad for the township,” the lawyer said. “One thing I’m certain of is that this is a very passionate issue for a lot of people,” he said. So passionate, that in the 2007 township supervisors’ election, a Wal-Mart supporter running for office was narrowly defeated by a Wal-Mart opponent.
Judge Tylwalk still has not ruled on challenges to zoning amendments adopted by the township in 2003 that re-zoned the site of the planned Wal-Mart for commercial use. CRG states that the township failed to give proper notice before changing zoning along Cornwall Road. This year, township supervisors re-adopted the township’s zoning ordinance, including the section designating the Wal-Mart property as commercial. But CRG says the conditional use permit the township granted in 2005 was not valid because the zoning at the time was not valid. CRG hopes that if the judge rules in their favor on the zoning appeal, that Wal-Mart will have to start from square one in seeking a conditional use permit. Readers are urged to help the Lebanon County Citizens for Responsible Growth by sending a check to cover their legal costs to: Citizens for Responsible Growth, Box 1048, Lebanon, PA. 17042.