Residents in Roanoke, Virginia are not content to sit back and watch another Wal-Mart supercenter get greased through the permitting process. The Roanoke Times reports that a group of Roanoke County landowners have retained a land use attorney and are fighting an effort by Roanoke County officials to have their lawsuit thrown out. The County and residents debated the county’s motion to dismiss this week. Circuit Judge Robert Doherty heard the case during a two-hour hearing, and then told the lawyers he would hand down a written decision, with no date specified. Roanoke County had an attorney, as did the developer, Holrob Associates. Philip Strother, a Richmond attorney representing the landowners, argued that the citizens should have their day in court to have the case heard on its merits. Strother charges that the county failed to follow its own procedures in approving the Wal-Mart at the end of October. The County Board of Supervisors rezoned land for the Wal-Mart, and then gave the project a special permit for a 41 acre piece of land. The location of the proposed superstore is just south of an existing Wal-Mart along Route 220, which will surely close if this superstore is approved. The land is located in an overlay zoning district that places restrictions on building design, landscaping, signs, and lighting. It also requires that any building larger than 50,000 s.f. obtain a special permit. Holrob’s proposal for a Wal-Mart supercenter is four times greater, at over 200,000 s.f. Residents charge that the special use permit granted therefore violated the intent of the overlay district, which was to limit the size and scenic impact of retail buildings.
Requiring a building over a certain size to have a special permit is better than requiring no special permit, but as this case in Virginia shows, if local officials want to approve a superstore, unless there is a firm cap on the size of buildings, officials will just give the project a special permit, even though it flies in the face of why they created an overlay zone in the first place. That requires local residents to raise funds, hire a lawyer, and take the officials to court. This scenario gets played out again and again across the country. Local officals enact a size threshold that looks like they mean business, but as soon as a big developer comes knocking, they’re stumbling over each other to ignore the intent of the threshold. In Roanoke, the residents had no option but to sue. The County is wasting taxpayer’s money by hiring their own lawyer in this case. They should have let the developer, Holrob, bear the financial burden of defending its special permit. Roanoke County residents in this lawsuit are thus paying not only for their lawyer, but for the county’s lawyer as well.