Local officials in Exeter, Pennsylvania are doing a little Wal-Mart reality check. The Borough Council has decided it needs the facts before making findings. Usually local boards make their findings, and they look to Wal-Mart to supply the ‘facts.’ On March 26, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Planning Commission in Exeter, a small borough with roughly 6,000 people, had voted 2-1 to recommend to the Borough Council that land slated for a Wal-Mart supercenter be rezoned commercially. Residents against the supercenter have formed a group called “Exeter First” to prevent the industrially-zoned parcel from being rezoned to commercial. The rezoning is essential to pave the way for a 153,000 s.f. supercenter on a 15.5 acre site. The Borough Council chambers were packed with residents, and the rezoning vote came “despite residents’ pleas to hold off on a decision,” according to the Times Leader newspaper. The land Wal-Mart wants is the site of a former mobile home park, and is zoned light industrial. Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the Planning Commission that his client wanted to be “as transparent as possible,” yet borough residents had to file a “right to know” letter with local officials to see the documents Wal-Mart had submitted. Wal-Mart argued that rezoning the land was appropriate, because the site lies inside a corridor that already has many other commercial businesses — but none of them nearly the size of three football fields. Opponents have charged that the huge development would overwhelm the sewage system in the town. Wal-Mart’s engineers said the huge impervious site would somehow reduce flooding in the area, because it will have an underground retention basin that will hold stormwater and release it slowly. Flooding is a major issue in Exeter, because part of this project lies in the Hicks Creek watershed, and the borough has had a moratorium on construction in the watershed because of past flooding problems. Members of the Hicks Creek Watershed Association argued that the Wal-Mart presentation used flawed topographical data. Residents asked that the borough hire an independent engineering firm that hasn’t represented Wal-Mart for the past five years to review plans addressing storm water leaving the site. Wal-Mart’s lawyer responded that the retailer was willing to provide “an open checkbook” to underwrite any studies the Council might require. Increased traffic congestion was also raised by a number of area residents, as well as concerns over traffic cutting through side streets, and the impact the project would have overall on nearby residential property values. Wal-Mart’s traffic engineer, as traffic engineers routinely do, claimed that once Wal-Mart adjusted the traffic signals in the area, that cars would “flow even better than it is flowing today.” Adding 6,000 or more car trips a day will improve traffic flow, the company argued. Exeter Borough Council Chairman Richard Murawski appeared to be ready to approve the project before it even reached his desk. Murawki referred to the project as a “Home Town Wal-Mart” in the Pittston Dispatch, and admitted that Wal-Mart had a ‘work session’ with the Council in late February, at which Wal-Mart presented detailed plans to deal with stormwater runoff. Murawski told the newspaper that Wal-Mart has proven that they will reduce the water runoff in the Hicks Creek Watershed, satisfying the requirements to lift the building moratorium for this project. The Chairman said the Council will ask for a traffic study, and will review the infrastructure and public safety requirements of the superstore. Murawski even told the Dispatch that “everything is looking positive” for the project, and that he believes the superstore will “create 300 plus jobs, while increasing Exeter’s tax base, something that is truly beneficial in this economy,” according to the Dispatch story. Rumors of Wal-Mart’s interest in this property go back at least a year. In February of 2008, a Wal-Mart representative told the media, “I can confirm that we have not worked on a project with a developer in that location. So if a developer was supposed to be before council, that wasn’t Wal-Mart.” So much for transparency. On June 2, 2009 the Borough Council voted to conduct an overall study of the impact of the rezoning of the Wyoming Avenue parcel. This move was in direct response to requests from Exeter First that the council conduct a study before any public hearing on a zoning change. Rumors have been circulating in the borough that the Council had already set a zoning hearing to happen before July 7 — which would have made an impact study moot. But Council President Murawski said July 7th was just speculation on the public’s part, but he did not present any clear timetable. Attorney Brad Kurlancheek, a member of Exeter First, asked the council not schedule a public hearing until the impact study has been completed, and entered into the record. Kurlancheek charged that the original application for a zoning amendment was no longer valid, because the Borough had failed to respond to the application according to local requirements. Murawski told the Times Leader that the Council will initiate a thorough study of the Wal-Mart impact as soon as possible. According to the Citizen’s Voice newspaper, the study will examine the proposed store’s environmental, traffic, employment and tax base effects, and will be underwritten by the landowners.
At this week’s hearing, one resident presented the Borough Council with a petition against the Wal-Mart bearing 300 signatures. One Council member, when presented with the petition, told the public, “My vote, when I do vote, pro or against, will be what the majority wants in this town … and believe me, if I have to go door to door, I will.” “I kind of hope nobody has an opinion yet because we’re going to have a hearing,” the council’s lawyer added. The Council President and Vice Chair were criticized for meeting privately with Wal-Mart two years ago, at a meeting brokered by an area Chamber of Commerce. “Two members of a borough council cannot make a decision in and of themselves,” the Council’s lawyer said. “That’s the answer. If you don’t like the answer, that’s the answer.” Exeter First has vowed to fight the project before the Borough Council. The day before the March hearing, the citizen’s group issued the following press release: “Exeter First, a group of Exeter and Wyoming Valley residents concerned about the proposed construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Exeter, will attend the Exeter Borough Planning Commission Meeting… The group has questions and concerns about traffic safety, traffic congestion, and water runoff regarding the proposal by a developer to construct a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Wyoming Avenue in Exeter.” Readers are urged to call Borough Chairman Richard Murkawski at (570) 654-3001 with this message: “Mr. Chairman, I urge you not to rubber stamp approval of the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. It will NOT create 300 jobs, because you already have a nearby Wal-Mart in Pittston just minutes away, a superstore in Wilkes-Barre less than 7 miles away, and more Wal-Marts being built nearby. This project will add little or no economic value to your trade area, because it is already saturated with Wal-Marts. That means more market share taken from existing merchants — but not new jobs. The land in question has been light industrial since at least 1972, and you could attract better paying jobs by keeping the land industrially zoned, instead of ‘down-zoning’ it to commercial. There were serious traffic and environmental concerns that the Planning Commission did not fully review — given the fact that only 3 people on that Commission passed the project onto the Council in one evening. You are right to ask for a full impact statement on this project, because a rush to judgment could end up in a courtroom, rather than at a ribbon cutting. You need an independent traffic study, and an independent look at stormwater runoff. Wal-Mart has offered you an ‘open checkbook’ to pay for such studies — so you should take them up on that. You can’t buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf — but once they take it from you, you can’t buy it back at any price. A small community of 6,000 people has no need for a superstore the size of three football fields. Vote NO on the rezoning, and listen to your citizens.”