It all came down to one person’s vote. But the battle over a Wal-Mart supercenter in Exeter, Pennsylvania is just starting. Residents in the small borough of Exeter, population roughly 6,000 people, don’t want land rezoned for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Residents have formed a group called “Exeter First” to prevent an industrially-zoned parcel from being rezoned commercial. The rezoning is critical to pave the way for a 153,000 s.f. supercenter on a 15.5 acre site. Last night, the Exeter Planning Commission voted 2-1 to recommend to the Borough Council that the land be rezoned commercially. According to the Times Leader newspaper, the Council chambers were packed with residents, and the rezoning vote came “despite residents’ pleas to hold off on a decision. The land Wal-Mart wants is the site of a former mobile home park, and is zoned light industrial. Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the Planning Commission that his client wants to be “as transparent as possible,” yet borough residents had to file a “right to know” letter with local officials to see the documents Wal-Mart had submitted. Wal-Mart argued that rezoning the land was appropriate, because the site lies inside a corridor that already has many other commercial businesses — but none of them nearly the size of three football fields. Opponents have charged that the huge development would overwhelm the sewage system in the town. Wal-Mart’s engineers said the huge impervious site would somehow reduce flooding in the area, because it will have an underground retention basin that will hold stormater and release it slowly. Flooding is a major issue, because part of this project lies in the Hicks Creek watershed, and the borough has had a moratorium on construction in the watershed because of past flooding problems. Members of the Hicks Creek Watershed Association argued that the Wal-Mart presentation was using flawed topographical data. Residents asked that the borough hire an independent engineering firm that hasn’t represented Wal-Mart for the past five years to review plans addressing storm water leaving the site. Wal-Mart’s lawyer responded that the retailer was willing to provide “an open checkbook” to underwrite any studies the Council might require. Increased traffic congestion was also raised by a number of area residents, as well as concerns over traffic cutting through side streets, and the impact the project would have overall on nearby residential property values. Wal-Mart’s traffic engineer, as traffic engineers routinely do, claimed that once Wal-Mart adjusted the traffic signals in the area, that cars “can flow even better than it is flowing today.” Adding 6,000 or more car trips a day will improve traffic flow, the company argued. Exeter Borough Council Chairman Richard Murawski appears to be ready to approve the project before it even reaches his desk. Murawki referred to the project as a “Home Town Wal-Mart” in the Pittston Dispatch, and admitted that Wal-Mart had a ‘work session’ with the Council in late February, at which Wal-Mart presented detailed plans to deal with stormwater runoff. Murawski told the newspaper that Wal-Mart has proven that they will reduce the water runoff in the Hicks Creek Watershed, satisfying the requirements to lift the building moratorium for this project. The Chairman said the Council will ask for a traffic study, and will review the infrastructure and public safety requirements of the superstore. Murawski even told the Dispatch that “everything is looking positive” for the project, and that he believes the superstore will “create 300 plus jobs, while increasing Exeter’s tax base, something that is truly beneficial in this economy,” according to the Dispatch story. Rumors of Wal-Mart’s interest in this property go back at least a year. In February of 2008, a Wal-Mart representative told the media, “”I can confirm that we have not worked on a project with a developer in that location. So if a developer was supposed to be before council, that wasn’t Wal-Mart.” So much for transparency.
Area attorney Brad Kurlancheek told the Planning Commission that local residents had not had a chance to review Wal-Mart’s plans, which were not readily available. One resident complained that when he went to retrieve the documents at the borough building late last week, he was told he had to fill out an application request, and that the documents would not be available for several days. “Given this public response, wouldn’t it be fair to wait 30 days before you make your recommendation? You need some time to look at this and get comments from people,” Kurlancheek said. The Planning Commission’s attorney reminded residents that the commission only makes a recommendation to the Borough Council, and that the Council has the freedom to vote either way on the projectd. But Kurlancheek told the commission its recommendation “holds a lot of weight.” “Just to ram this thing through without hearing from the people who live in this town is being speedy for no reason at all. I’m just asking you to allow 30 days so the public has a chance to review the documents and make public comment,” Kurlancheek testified. In the end, the rezoning motion carried by one vote. Exeter First has vowed to fight the project as it heads towards the Borough Council. The day before the hearing, the citizen’s group issued the following press release: “Exeter First, a group of Exeter and Wyoming Valley residents concerned about the proposed construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Exeter, will attend the Exeter Borough Planning Commission Meeting… The group has questions and concerns about traffic safety, traffic congestion, and water runoff regarding the proposal by a developer to construct a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Wyoming Avenue in Exeter.” Readers are urged to call Borough Chairman Richard Murkawski at (570) 654-3001 with this message: “Mr. Chairman, I urge you not to rubber stamp approval of the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. It will NOT create 300 jobs, because you already have a nearby Wal-Mart in Pittston just minutes away, a superstore in Wilkes-Barre less than 7 miles away, and more Wal-Marts being built nearby. This project will add little or no economic value to your trade area, because it is already saturated with Wal-Marts. That means more market share taken from existing merchants — but not new jobs. The land in question has been light industrial since at least 1972, and you could attract better paying jobs by keeping the land industrially zoned, instead of ‘down-zoning’ it to commercial. Finally, there was serious traffic and environmental concerns that the Planning Commission did not fully review — given the fact that only 3 people on that Commission passed the project onto the Council in one evening. Your residents have not even had a chance to review the project, and your rush to judgment could end up in a courtroom, rather than at a ribbon cutting. You need an independent traffic study, and an independent look at stormwater runoff. Wal-Mart has offered you an ‘open checkbook’ to pay for such studies — so I urge you to take them up on that. You can’t buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf — but once they take it from you, you can’t buy it back at any price. A small community of 6,000 people has no need for a superstore the size of three football fields. Vote NO on the rezoning, and listen to your citizens.”