It took more than three years, but the stalwart residents of Front Royal, Virginia have finally overcome a Wal-Mart threat to build a 184,000 s.f. superstore at the gateway to their town. Sprawl-Busters first wrote about this community in December, 2002, when it was announced that a citizen’s group would challenge the giant retaile’s plan to rezone land on the shores of the Shenandoah river at the northern entrance into Front Royal. The battle included a standoff at the City Council level, a lawwsuit, and an election that tossed out pro-Wal-Mart officials. The whole affair took on a circus atmosphere when Town Councilor Fred Foster refused, in the spring of 2003, to show up for Council meetings so the group would not have a quorum to vote for rezoning land for Wal-Mart. The Town Council eventually took a vote without Foster’s support, which left the quorum vote subject to a lawsuit. But this week, Wal-Mart confirmed that it was pulling out from the site, after the Mayor of Front Royal urged them to move on. “We’re just so happy,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson told the media, “we can give the community exactly what they’re looking for. We think this is a win-win situation.” The company made it clear that they still plan to open a store in the area, but citizens have chased them from the banks of the scenic river entryway to town. One factor in Wal-Mart’s decision was the fact that the state had no plans to replace a bridge required for the store until the year 2009 — a timeline that prevented Wal-Mart from making further road improvements needed for their project. Mayor James Eastham said, “I am pleased that Wal-Mart has reconsidered its position and decided to locate its supercenter to another site.” But the Mayor also noted that he was pleased that the retailer was still committed to coming to Front Royal — just at another location. Wal-Mart’s plan required the town to rezone 121 acres from residential to commercial. The citizen’s group Save Our Gateway fought the project every step of the way. The group argued that Wal-Mart should locate in the existing commercial corridor along Route 522, which already has town water and sewer lines. At one point, the citizens’ group sued Wal-Mart and Front Royal, challenging the vote that approved the river location. That vote had been clouded by the lack of a quorum. Then in May of 2004, voters turned out of office four of the pro-Wal-Mart town council, including the incumbent Mayor. The new council reversed the town’s position on rezoning, and joined in with the Save Our Gateway lawsuit.
This case is reminiscent of the attempt by Wal-Mart to locate on Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington, also in Virginia. Local residents there fought the store, and pushed Wal-Mart to another location. The “win-win” situation in Front Royal means that Wal-Mart will find another location for their store that doesn’t need rezoning, and isn’t at the scenic gateway into town. Wal-Mart eventually gets their store, after a fruitless three year waste of stockholder’s money, and the citizens don’t have to put up with a store in a residential area. It’s too bad that Wal-Mart Realty never looked at a zoning map before announcing their plans. In Front Royal, they could have been open and operating two years ago if they had paid a little more attention to the zoning map, and listened to Save Our Gateway. Instead, they pushed the community, forced voters to cast four people out of office, and triggered a lawsuit. All because of sloppy, mindless land use planning at Wal-Mart. Front Royal is emblematic of the callous attitude Wal-Mart displays against local communities. It is an attitude rooted in arrogance, and a plan based on bowling over the local opposition to get what you want. Front Royal residents eventually will get a superstore, and they will learn first hand that it will drive up their public safety costs (police), worsen their traffic problems, and provide little or no economic boost to the town. Front Royal will become a little more like any other Virginia Wal-Mart town, and a little less desirable as a place to visit and live. All for cheap underwear. For the history of Front Royal’s battle, search this Newsflash page by the name of the town.