On March 13, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Roanoke, Virginia had filed a lawsuit to stop a Wal-Mart supercenter from being built. The group “Citizens for Smart Growth Roanoke” charged that Roanoke County failed to follow their own procedures in approving the Wal-Mart at the end of October, 2006. 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, the Tennessee developer, submitted a Wal-Mart supercenter four times greater, at over 200,000 s.f. Residents charged 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. This week, residents wrote Sprawl-Busters with the following update: “The circuit court ruled to dismiss our lawsuit. ALL the traffic now will use the one entrance/exit. Wal-Mart just assumed they could get a 2nd entrance at the upscale Landrover dealership, but they were told “NO.” We, of course, were all told 60% of the traffic would never reach the nearby school. The traffic will include Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart family, school children, etc. Residents will share one traffic light. This is the only entrance and exit into Clearbrook Elementary School and the only way EMS can acess Route 220. Route 220 is dangerous enough now and will only get more dangerous. The area is also slated for I-73, which means more profits for Wal-Mart and more crime for us when the interstate arrives.” According to the Roanoke Times, Judge Robert Doherty ruled that the county’s decision to allow the construction met the legal standard of being “fairly debatable,” that even if “objective and reasonable persons” had differing opinions about it, the board of supervisors’ decision was reasonable and legal. The citizens argued that the site plan did not include specifics about plans for the project’s outparcels, which resident’s said were required by county zoning regulations. The judge ruled that the traffic impact studies paid for by the developer were adequate and that the county review was not “arbitrary, capricious, irrational or unreasonable.” The county said it was “pleased” with the court’s ruling. But Citizens for Smart Growth Roanoke said the special-use permit violates the intent of a special Clearbrook Village Overlay District that the county adopted in 2000. A super Wal-Mart will not preserve a village character for the neighborhood, and it should have required a special permit since the store exceeded 50,000 s.f. But the judge ducked the issue of consistency of the project with the zone it sits in. “It is not the role of the Court to decide whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be built on the land in question,” he wrote. The court’s job “is to decide whether the Board, as the legislative body, complied with the law when it passed the ordinance that rezoned the land and granted the special-use permit.”
As I pointed out in March, requiring a building over a certain size to have a special permit is better than requiring no special permit at all, but as this case 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. In Roanoke, the residents had no option but to sue. The County also wasted taxpayer’s money by hiring their own lawyer to defend the developer’s permit. They should have let the developer, Holrob, bear the financial burden of defending its special permit. Roanoke County residents who sued, ended up paying not only for their lawyer, but for the county’s lawyer as well. Citizens for Smart Growth Roanoke says it is considering an appeal in this case. For more information about this case, please visit the group’s website: http://www.citizensforsmartgrowthroanoke.com.