Ever want to live next door to a Wal-Mart? Not exactly the average homeowner’s idea of Nirvana — but it could pay off in the long run, if events in Charlotte, North Carolina are any example. According to The Charlotte Observer, a nationally-known Wal-Mart developer offered neighbors big bucks to drop their protest of a proposed Walp-Mart and Sam’s Club retail complex. The developer, Lincoln Harris/JDN, has submitted a proposal to Charlotte officials to rezone 96 acres of land on Independence Boulevard to build a megacomplex of 360,000 s.f., with 209 residential units as well. Planners in the city have objected that the Lincoln Harris proposal “violates adopted land use plans for the area”, which call for homes not malls along the major transit corridor. On November 22nd, the whole shooting match comes before the Charlotte City Council, which is under no obligation to rezone anything. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has indicated his opposition to the rezoning, and the vote requires a super-majority because abuttors have signed protest petitions. These petitions require the Council to come up with 9 affirmative votes. Many communities have such super-majority provisions in their bylaws to protect citizens when adjoining residents are unhappy with a rezoning plan. Enter the developer with a checkbook. One adjacent landowner claims that developers asked her how much it would take for her to withdraw her protest, thereby eliminating the need for a super-majority vote. In a letter dated November 10th, a vice president of Lincoln Harris sent a letter to five protest petitioners offering each of them $40,000 to withdraw their opposition to the Wal-Mart complex. They didn’t. Several days later, the Lincoln Harris official called each abuttor and said the letter had been sent by mistake. One abuttor told reporters: “What good is $40,000 to me if I have a 5 lane highway in my backyard,” referring to the fact that the Wal-Mart project would push a planned roadway expansion closer to his property. The neighboring town of Matthews is also on record against the plan, because local reports suggest that if a new Sam’s club is built in Charlotte, the one in Matthews will be shut down.
It is not unusual for developers to try and buy off abuttors, or simply buy their property to clear them away as opponents. There is nothing illegal with offering people money to drop their concerns. In some cases, some of the most vocal opponents of a project disappear when a check is placed in their hands by an eager developer. In the Charlotte example, monied interests are trying to purchase a rezoning that area planners say flies in the face of city land use plans. Those plans, by the way, were produced with taxpayer’s money — probably as much as the $200,000 in “offers” made to abuttors by Lincoln Harris/JDN. Charlotte Observer Associate Editor Mary Newsom sums it up this way: “Will (Charlotte politicians) keep letting big box retailers build, abandon, and build anew every 10 years or so, until every corner of the county is graced with the ugly carcasses of big boxes gone by?”