Sprawl-Busters took a trip to Moon, Pennsylvania in June of 2008. A group of residents in this Pittsburg suburb were organizing to block a proposed Wal-Mart superstore at one of the busiest intersections in the small community. Two years later, Wal-Mart is still trying to hit the Moon.
The retailer’s plans for Moon, Pennsylvania have been knocked off course during public hearings. On July 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Supervisors in Moon township had taken one giant step for mankind — by voting against a preliminary plan for a Wal-Mart superstore — but one week later, under fear of litigation from Wal-Mart, they reversed their decision and voted in favor of the superstore.
The supervisors voted 3-2 against a Wal-Mart preliminary plan for a superstore on July 3rd. But seven days later, at a hastily called meeting on July 10, 2008, they reversed their vote to 4-1 in favor of the plan. Two of the supervisors who voted against the plan said they had “misgivings about the legality of their vote.” The town’s lawyer advised officials that if they voted against Wal-Mart, the giant retailer might sue them. The officials apparently were not concerned that if they voted for Wal-Mart that their own taxpayers would sue them. All Wal-Mart had to do in Moon was threaten to throw its legal weight around, and the supervisors backed down.
Wal-Mart has applied to build a 148,561 s.f. superstore on the site of an abandoned 1960s-era mall known as the West Hills Shopping Center, located on one of the community’s major intersections, University Boulevard and Brodhead road. There are also two major housing developments abutting the project on its western side.
Wal-Mart has 15 stores within 25 miles of Moon, including a Wal-Mart three miles away from this site. The proposed Wal-Mart is incompatible with all the planning the township has done over the past 7 years regarding the special overlay district where this site is located. The township created the University Boulevard Overlay district as a tool to implement their strategic plan for the area. Then Wal-Mart entered the picture, and the strategic plan went out the window.
In January of 2007, the public learned that the West Hills Shopping Center had been sold to Wal-Mart for $4.7 million. During their review of Wal-Mart’s preliminary plan, the Supervisors quickly became concerned over the potential traffic congestion at the already difficult intersection. Board Chairman Tim McLaughlin told Wal-Mart representatives that he didn’t want to go to his grave knowing that his board was responsible for creating a traffic gridlock. “We have a quality of life that is outstanding,” McLaughlin said. “We want to protect our resident’s quality of life. We don’t want the center of our township to become a gridlock.”
The objective of the University Boulevard overlay district was to create a district for “regional scale mixed use development,” not suburban sprawl. The overlay district flatly states: “Buildings which exhibit long, flat facades and continuous linear strip development are prohibited.” The parking lot does not conform to the design guidelines, so Wal-Mart had asked the township to make the overlay district fit the retailer’s needs — rather than the district’s requirements.
On August 20, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Moon residents gave the supervisors and Wal-Mart a little legal advice of their own. The citizen’s group Moon First had filed an appeal against the Moon Supervisors and Wal-Mart in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The residents’ appeal charged that the supervisors’ decision was “arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory.” The appeal sought to overturn the conditional use modification that allowed Wal-Mart to reduce the side setback of its development from 40 feet to 10 feet from the abutting apartment and condo complex on Brodhead Road.
“That’s my biggest concern,” one of the plaintiffs, Edwin Nelson, told the Pittsburg Tribune Review. Nelson is a former Moon supervisor. “If they could build a smaller store, satisfy our traffic concerns and return to the 40-foot buffer, I would not necessarily be opposed to them,” he said.
By not respecting local zoning provisions, Wal-Mart’s superstore turned into another lawsuit for the shareholders to pay for. On November 12, 2008, Wal-Mart came back to the Supervisors for another vote. For the second time, the Supervisors voted to approve the retailer’s plans on a 3-2 vote. On October 10, 2009, The Pittsburg Tribune-Review reported that Wal-Mart had amended its traffic plan for the proposal Moon superstore. Plans for a shared road with the Colony West apartment complex next door had fallen apart. Wal-Mart also proposed a new traffic signal on Brodhead Road. This new plan will have to be approved by PennDOT first.
Part of Moon First’s lawsuit charged that the shared road would have left only a 10-foot buffer between the development and apartment complex, which does not meet code. Wal-Mart’s revised plan gives the retailer its own access road. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper that the new road will “provide greater distance between the access for our store and the residents of Colony West. The new plan retains the (Colony West) residents’ current access drive so they don’t have to share with our customers.” However, the new road will now be closer to Moon’s busiest intersection at University Boulevard, and that has some supervisors worried.
This week, the Tribune-Review reports that Wal-Mart is planning to tear down all the existing buildings in the West Hills mall — except a Sherwin-Williams store. The paint store has a lease until 2012, but staff at the store say Sherwin-Williams wants to get out of West Hills and find a new location.
Moon officials told the newspaper that Wal-Mart will be going before the Planning Commission on June 29th, and then to the Board of Supervisors on July 7th. The Wal-Mart plan coming in for review gives Wal-Mart its own entrance, and drops the joint driveway with the abutting apartment complex.
Town officials also noted that Wal-Mart’s plan is now showing the required 40 foot buffer yard between the store’s property, and the residential building next door.
The town also says that Wal-Mart submitted a demolition plan for the existing shopping center, and, in the words of the town’s planner, “Demolition could happen at any time.” This provides some insight into the thinking of the Board of Supervisors. The town has given Wal-Mart a green light to begin demolition at the site before the latest plans even have been before the Planning Commission.
There have been a lot of bumps on their trip to the Moon for Wal-Mart. The company could be responsive to the community, and scale down the size of the store, and adhere to the district’s requirements — but it attempted to blast away the opposition instead.
The township abandoned its own overlay district plans. Instead of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Moon, supervisors were voting to protect themselves.
The supervisors had plenty of legal reasons to deny this plan — all of them based on their zoning code — not on whether or not they liked the store. The township could have written up findings of fact that demonstrated that a 100% retail project is an inappropriate use in an overlay zone designed for ‘regional scale mixed use development.’ Instead of focusing on the variances requested, the Supervisors lost sight of the overlay district goals and purpose.
They could also have raised concerns over the fact that this project will be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other properties in the immediate vicinity. Local opponents had little option but to pursue their legal rights to litigate themselves — using the same blunt instrument that Wal-Mart used to get the Board to reverse its vote.
Readers are urged to email Supervisor Chairman Tim McLaughlin at [email protected] with the following message: “Mr. Chairman, I was amazed to hear that Moon has given Wal-Mart approval to start demolition at West Hills before the plan has been considered by your Planning Commission. What if the Commission objects to the plan? What if Moon First prevails in court?
The plan submitted by Wal-Mart is still too big, and inharmonious with the overlay district it is in. Wal-Mart could solve many of their problems by proactively shrinking the store, and on their own volition adhere to the setback and design provisions the township painstakingly put into place. This company has the financial capacity to meet all the standards in the district.
Supervisors should never have approved a final plan on this site without an independent traffic impact study, a slope stabilization study, a fiscal impact study, a noise study, a lighting/glare study, and an assessment of their impact on abutting residential properties.
You had the right under your zoning code to deny this project, and use incompatibility with the overlay district and traffic congestion as just two reasons. Most of the objections to this plan are scale-related.
If the township backs down every time a developer threatens litigation, then you really have no Overlay District, and you have no zoning left at all. It’s time to enforce your code, and make Wal-Mart fit Moon — not the reverse.
The latest traffic plan by Wal-Mart pushes the congestion problem closer to University Boulevard, and does not resolve traffic concerns. The problem is very simple: the store — and the traffic it will produce — is just too intense for the site.
Chairman McLaughlin, you said last year that you didn’t want to go to your grave having created traffic gridlock in Moon. This latest plan is very grave — and creates the very gridlock you were deathly afraid of.”