On September 30, 2002, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Tennessee developer had run into a WAL of questions in the community of Abingdon, Virginia. According to an account in the Washington County News, representatives from Abingdon J T Partners, LLC of Knoxville, Tennessee, appeared before the town’s Planning Commission to present a “preliminary, preliminary” plat that subdivided 30 acres of commercial property into 10 sections off exit 14 of Interstate 81. The remaining section of land is zoned residential. But commissioners found the presentation too vague. “Why are we looking at this when we don’t have any information or anything to vote on tonight?” one Planning Commissioner asked. Commission member Ed Morgan, who also sits on the Town Council, which will make the final decision, told the developer he had a “strong series of concerns” about their plan and the impact it would have on a very bad traffic flow at Exit 14. Morgan said he wanted strong controls and design standards over any large project. “I would not be committed at all to possibly approve a plat that did not have design standards as part of it,” Morgan said. “When I was elected to council, I was concerned about sprawl. Abingdon is one of the few towns in Southwest Virginia that is experiencing any growth at all. We need to manage that growth in a smart way,” Morgan said. The County News said Morgan drew a large cheer from the crowd when he said: “If you’re willing to accept a big box, then they’re going to give you a big box. And I think the time has passed when we’re going to accept a big box,” When pressed by residents to reveal who the tenants were, the developer stated “I’m not going to lie to you that Wal-Mart is very interested in being in Abingdon.” The Planning Commission told upset neighbors that all their job was to do was to recommend or not recommend the division of the property. “Our job here is to decide if we can divide it up into lots. The property is already
zoned business.” On November 16, 2002, Sprawl-Busters received an update from community activists: “Wal-Mart opposition forces in Abingdon, Virginia have geared up. One facet of our opposition is a petition for citizens to express their opposition to big box development in our historic town. At this point, we see the petition being used only for presentation to Town Council as a demonstration of the size of the opposition.” A second report from Abingdon noted that “a group of 50 + concerned citizens met November 14th to strategize a plan to defeat proposed Wal-Mart development off exit 14 of I 81. We have formed committees (Legal, ordinance/zoning, public ed/outreach and fundraising). We are about to initiate a petition and a letter writing campaign to the local land owners and are considering making a request for a 2nd independent more extensive traffic study.” This week, 6 years later, the Wal-Mart development is still up in the air. A preliminary subdivision plat was approved for a proposed Walmart shopping center at Exit 14 in 2002, but yesterday a circuit court judge said it would be several more months before he rules on how the development can proceed. Washington County Circuit Court Judge C. Randall Lowe, after hearing evidence from the Town of Abingdon, where the retail center would be located, and Commonwealth-Abingdon Partners LP, the developer, gave both sides a schedule to provide briefs on the case. According to the Bristol News, the Judge said, “The bottom line is really there’s not too much debate as to the facts. It’s really the interpretation of the facts as they apply to the law. There are subtleties here that the court does not wish to miss.” The developer argues that it should be able to proceed under the town’s zoning ordinance that was in effect in 2002, when the project was first presented. Over the past six years, the developer has had to obtain state and federal approvals for highway changes needed for the superstore. The developer says it has vested rights in the project that pre-date the newer ordinance — and has spent more than $1 million to develop the site. But town officials argue that the Abingdon Planning Commission did not approve a final subdivision plat and did not consider a related site plan in April 2003. The Abingdon town council never considered the subdivision plan, so legally it is still pending approval. In July 0f 2003, the town amended its zoning ordinance to require this project to meet additional requirements, because it was located on a major highway that leads to an historic district. Under the 2003 rules, the Wal-Mart would also need a special permit because it is larger than 50,000 s.f. In fact, the Wal-Mart is more than three times this size at 183,917 s.f. The developer’s lawyer says the project will die if the judge rules in favor of the town. “I can pretty well say you won’t see this project if it goes that way,” the developer’s lawyer said. “Every project has a cost benefit, and if too many development burdens are put on the project … . You can’t buy a $1 million house if you make $50,000 a year.” The developer, however, insists that he’s “in it for the long haul” and says the project will be built. “I think it’s a good project and I think that eventually we will get it built,” the developer told the Bristol News. “At Exit 14.” But Abingdon’s town attorney told the newspaper, “The town wants what’s best for the town’s residents, and we know all the controls that we can put in place to guarantee the future and guarantee the safety of the town residents are the best way to go. We want what’s best for the town, and we have an obligation to represent the town fully.” She told the Bristol News that the very people who criticize the town’s zoning regulations enjoy looking at a town governed by those rules.
Six years ago Sprawl-Busters noted that the Abingdon Planning Commission has the power to reject a project — even on commercially zoned land — if the project has adverse impacts on the community, such as worsening congestion at Exit 14. Just because land has the proper zoning underneath it does not remove the Planning Commission’s proper role to ensure that the scale and design of the project meets the health, safety and welfare of residents. In case law, a number of local authorities have denied a project on commercial land because it created significant adverse impacts that could not be mitigated. The issue here is not where the subdivision lines are drawn, but whether the project’s size and location result in acceptable impacts. Abingdon is a town that is trying to protect its character and historic appearance. The town is marking its 230th anniversary this year. Readers are urged to send an email to Abingdon Mayor Lois Humphreys at [email protected], and to Vice Mayor Ed Morgan at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Humphreys and Vice Mayor Morgan, For six years the shadow of a huge Wal-Mart has been cast over your small town. This project was the wrong size from the very beginning. There is no reason why a store the size of three football fields needs to be built at Exit 14. If people in Abingdon must have their cheap Chinese imports, there is already a Wal-Mart superstore 11 miles away in Bristol on Lee Highway. In fact, there are three Wal-Mart supercenters within 20 miles of Abingdon. This project really is not compatible with your 2007 Comprehensive Plan for the town. Keep fighting off this inappropriate project, and force developers to come in with smaller plans, in more appropriate locations. I fully support the comment made six years ago by Vice Mayor Morgan: “The time has passed when we’re going to accept a big box.”