Robert Frost wrote about the road not taken. But this is a story about a road that was taken. At the end of January, Wal-Mart notified city officials in St. Charles, Illinois that they were going to file a new set of plans for a Wal-Mart supercenter on 30 acres of land on the east side of town. The retailer’s original plans, which needed special use permits, included a drive-through pharmacy, a tire and lube exchange (TLE), and a garden center. The plans were supposed to be reviewed by the St. Charles Plan Commission. But a city attorney continued the hearing until the end of February, arguing that a public hearing on a planned unit development might be required. But when Wal-Mart changed its plans, they argued that they no longer needed any special approval by the city. Many residents in the surrounding neighborhoods of Charlemagne and Kingwood testified that the 226,000 s.f. project would generate too many cars, hurt residential property values, and ruin their quality of life. They noted that the new supercenter would result in an empty Wal-Mart discount store located nearby at Route 64. But yesterday, the St. Charles alderman paved over Wal-Mart’s plans. The aldermen voted to negotiate for a land purchase of just under 3 acres that would block the supercenter from being built. The city says they need land to connect two roads — and the road they want to build falls right where Wal-Mart proposes to locate. The city says the move is not an effort to stop Wal-Mart, but part of the city’s comprehensive plan to connect Smith Road with Foxfield Drive. Improving traffic circulation has been identified as a high-priority goal by the city. The new road would divide the Wal-Mart parcel in half. If the deal goes through, it appears that Wal-Mart will not be able to relocate to the supercenter. Lawyers working on the land deal noted that the city could use eminent domain to buy the land if they can’t agree on a price with the owner. The city says the connector road problem has been an issue for more than a decade, and that the Wal-Mart roadwork connected with its supercenter did not address the need for a connector road. “These are traffic issues that transcend Wal-Mart,” one of the lawyers working for the city told the Daily Herald newspaper. “Any proposal to develop that property would have triggered this kind of analysis.” Another attorney told the Kane County Chronicle, “If we do not do this now, if Wal-Mart builds there, the land becomes too expensive to purchase.” The aldermen voted 8-0 to begin negotiations with the landowner. The land in question is owned by a local bank, not Wal-Mart. The retailer does not have title to the land.
There have been a number of occasions where city officials pre-empted a big box store. In Brick, New Jersey, for example, town officials used eminent domain, and spent millions of dollars buying up property to prevent a Home Depot from being built. In Billerica, Massachusetts, town officials worked with a private land trust to purchase the town’s last working farm out from under a Wal-Mart developer. Residents in St. Charles already have a Wal-Mart, and many of them might say that’s one more than enough. For now, the Wal-Mart supercenter project has been dis-connected by the city’s connector road.