“This thing is such a mess,” one neighbor wrote Sprawl Busters, “that I hardly know where to start.” Citizens in Forsyth, Georgia are battling not only a Wal-Mart supercenter, but city officials whose minds are made up and won’t let the facts stand in their way. This past week, the Forsyth City Council voted 4-1 to approve the rezoning of nine parcels of land for a Wal-Mart Supercenter — despite strong objections from neighbors. Residents say a superstore will dramatically change the character of their historic neighborhood, and cause property values to fall. Wal-Mart already has a smaller store in Forsyth right next to the proposed supercenter. They now want to build on 28 acres of land next to the Plantation Shopping Center — where Wal-Mart’s discount store is located. If the superstore opens, the discount store will be shut down, leaving the Plantation center without its main anchor store. The land Wal-Mart wants has residential zoning along a frontage strip, with commercial zoning behind it. Wal-Mart wants to see all the parcels entirely commercial. The city’s rezoning vote came just hours after the city ended a lawsuit brought against it by its own residents, admitting that it had made a mistake in rezoning the land. The lawsuit charged that city officials had adopted a new zoning ordinance without proper public notice. A Towaliga Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge was scheduled to make a preliminary ruling on the lawsuit, when the city Attorney admitted that the new ordinances, adopted June 6, were void, and that the city needed to advertise for another meeting and vote again. “We accept the fact that we advertised notice of the meeting only 14 days before the meeting, and by law it must be advertised for a minimum of 15 days,” the city said. But by admitting their wrong, the city was then free to go back to the old zoning code, and simply rezone the land for Wal-Mart. The Judge had suggested to the city council that they send the issue back to their Planning and Zoning board for a recommendation, but the council rushed the rezoning through again without seeking any planning recommendations. “I don’t know what their rush was,” the lawyer for the Forsyth couple who is suing the city told The Telegraph newspaper. “But this isn’t the end. We’ll consider our options and continue the effort to stop the project.” The residents said the city still was not following proper zoning standards and that more legal action to stop the rezoning could happen. The letter to Sprawl-Busters noted that newspaper accounts of this vote left out some crucial information. “This is an historic street of old homes on a beautiful tree lined street. What the article does not say is that the mayor owns the land which goes right down the middle of this parcel and lives in an old house on this land, which is part of the deal with Wal-Mart. He also owns a real estate company here. Wal-Mart has agreements with all of the owners already to purchase the land and some have even purchased other houses already. This is why the city council pushed this thing through against the advice of the judge and city attorney. Neighbors and others in the community have gotten enough money together to hire a lawyer but our city government seems so determined that they appear to be unstoppable and we are terrified.”
This proposed Wal-Mart supercenter adds no value to the Forsyth economy. In fact, it will leave the city with another empty Wal-Mart. Georgia already has 18 empty Wal-Marts, which the retailer euphemistically refers to as “dark stores.” Georgia doesn’t need more dead stores. The empty store list does not include the Forsyth store. Once the rezoning takes place, Wal-Mart then has to file a site plan, and go through the Good Old Boys Approval Process (GOBAP), and neighbors will have opportunities to challenge the process at that stage as well. But rezoning is the critical step, because without rezoning, this project cannot happen. These parcels were clearly designed for a mixed use of small retail and residential. The frontage was left for housing to keep a residential feeling to the area. The zoning intent was never to place large scale development to overpower the value of nearby residential land. Wal-Mart has bought the homeowners out, and left it in the hands of neighbors across the street to protect their historic neighborhood. The residents won round one in court, but the war is far from over.