What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Members of the Borough Council in Exeter, Pennsylvania looked pretty foolish this week when it became known that a borough official had given the Wal-Mart corporation preliminary approval to build a superstore — and the Council didn’t even know it.
On March 31, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Borough Council in Exeter was preparing to vote on a Wal-Mart superstore. A year earlier, on March 26, 2009, we reported that the Planning Commission in Exeter, a small borough with roughly 6,000 people, had voted 2-1 to recommend to the Borough Council that land slated for a Wal-Mart supercenter be rezoned commercially.
Residents against the supercenter formed a group called “Exeter First” to prevent the industrially-zoned parcel from being rezoned to commercial. The rezoning was essential to pave the way for a 153,000 s.f. supercenter on the undeveloped 15.5 acre site.
In 2009, the Borough Council chambers were packed with residents when the Planning Commission met, and the rezoning vote came “despite residents’ pleas to hold off on a decision,” according to the Times Leader newspaper.
The land Wal-Mart wants is the site of a former mobile home park, and is zoned light industrial. 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 charged that the huge development would overwhelm the sewage system in the town. Wal-Mart’s engineers said that despite creating a huge impervious site the store would somehow reduce flooding in the area, because it would have an underground retention basin to hold stormwater and release it slowly. Flooding is a major issue in Exeter, 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.
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.
On June 2, 2009 the Borough Council voted to conduct an overall study of the impact of the rezoning of the Wyoming Avenue/Route 11 corridor parcel. According to the Citizen’s Voice newspaper, the study would examine the proposed store’s environmental, traffic, employment and tax base effects, and would be underwritten by the landowners.
On March 3, 2010, Wal-Mart received what The Citizen’s Voice called a “potential knockout blow” when the Borough Council failed to adopt any motion to rezone land for the Wal-Mart. There were two ordinances before the Council, but when one councilor made a motion to reject the rezoning, there was silence: no one seconded it, so it died. Of the two motions Wal-Mart wanted — neither one of them could get a second either, so the silence of Council members killed the rezoning — at least for now. Because there was no vote at all, technically Wal-Mart can return and try again.
“It was a victory,” said Exeter First’s attorney. “The residents have been heard loud and clear.” But the borough’s attorney sounded a note of caution: “It was not defeated. So what can happen is it was basically tabled.”
That’s exactly all that happened. On March 30th, the issue was back before the City Council — but so was a 16 page memo entitled “Large Retail Developments” by an area architect, John Varaly. The memo includes a list of supplemental regulations that the Borough could use in reviewing any retail project greater than 40,000 s.f. for a conditional use permit.
Among Varaly’s suggestions: 1) that the proposed use be compatible with adjoining development and the character of the neighborhood 2) that the project will not adversely affect neighboring property values and aesthetic characteristics 3) that no retail building can exceed 75,000 s.f. 4) a community and economic impact study must be done, and must result in no significant adverse impact, and show a balancing as near as possible of public cost with public revenues. The study also has to look at the impacts from displacement of existing retailers. 5) each project must provide a performance/surety bond to provide funds to cover the costs of complete building demolition if the building is ever vacated or abandoned for more than 18 consecutive months. The memo also contains numerous building design standards, traffic and stormwater impact analysis.
The Varaly recommendations were prepared at the request of the Council, and the consultant had urged the Council to delay voting on the Wal-Mart plan until his recommendations were introduced. But at the March 30, 2010 working session, the Borough Council voted to take up the two Wal-Mart zoning changes at their next meeting — and put off Varaly’s memo for a public hearing on April 27th.
This meant that the Council intended to vote on the Wal-Mart request and not subject it to any of the new zoning suggestions made by its consultants. The Varaly plan would have killed the Wal-Mart — because the proposed regulations limit size to 75,000 s.f.
When one member of Exeter First complained that Wal-Mart had not answered all of the group’s questions, Council President Richard Murawski said he thought he had read Wal-Mart’s answers to the group, “but they’re probably at my office with my Wal-Mart file.” The Council in April, 2010 opened the door for Wal-Mart when it rezoned the controversial site from light industrial to commercial, and asked Wal-Mart to come up with detailed site plans.
But this week, the Wal-Mart project in Exeter was in the news again. The Citizen’s Voice reports that Council President Murawski told residents that council members would know before their zoning officer gave a planned Wal-Mart preliminary approval. “We’re the boss,” Murawski said at the time. “He’ll report back to us.”
But that’s the opposite of what happened. Borough Zoning Officer Dominick Pepe apparently took matters into his own hands, and sent a letter to Wal-Mart’s lawyer on July 20, 2010, giving the retailer preliminary approval for their giant store.
When this letter became public, Exeter First raised the legal issue of appeal rights. The group said Pepe’s actions may have triggered an appeal period that the public knew nothing about.
Murawski admitted this week that he had no idea that Pepe had sent out the letter. “You said you’re the boss. We’re the boss,” one Exeter First member scolded Murawski. “There’s a little inconsistency in your management.”
The Pepe letter became public when an Exeter First member filed a public records request from the borough. Now that the letter is out, Murawksi told the media, “We’re going to have a talk with Mr. Pepe about that and other items going on in the borough.”
The borough’s attorney downplayed the significance of the Pepe memo, telling the Citizen’s Voice that the missive was “little more than a formality.” The lawyer admitted, however, that Zoning Officer’s letter means that Wal-Mart won’t have to worry about the money its spending now on engineering plans, only to have themn later rejected over zoning issues. Pepe’s letter did not approve any permits, the lawyer said. “There’s a long road ahead of them,” the borough’s attorney said — but that long road will pass by very quickly.
During the Wal-Mart working session, one area resident turned to Wal-Mart’s lawyer and said, “This is our community, not yours. I live here. You’re going to go back to Philadelphia, the money’s going to go to Arkansas, and we’re going to be stuck with the problems.”
Exeter First has argued all along that the Borough needs to be in control of its future — not the developer. “Wal-Mart doesn’t get to zone the community, you do,” said the opponent’s lawyer. One resident summed up opponents objections to the store: “A big-box store doesn’t belong in a small town. It will destroy what we have here.”
When this project was first proposed, Exeter First said it was concerned “about traffic safety, traffic congestion, and water runoff.” But those issues washed right over the Borough Council, and they didn’t even maintain oversight over their own staff.
Readers are urged to call Borough Chairman Richard Murkawski at (570) 654-3001 with this message: “Mr. Chairman, The Borough Council missed the chance it had to put into place the tighter controls over large-scale projects as suggested by Mr. Varaly. It appeared that your mind was made up and you didn’t want to be confused by the facts.
You already have a nearby Wal-Mart in Pittston just minutes away, plus a superstore in Wilkes-Barre less than 7 miles away. More Wal-Marts are being built nearby. This project will add little or no economic value to your community, because it is already saturated with Wal-Marts. That means more market share taken from existing merchants — and no new jobs.
The land in question had been light industrial since at least 1972, and you could have attracted better paying jobs by keeping the land industrially zoned, instead of ‘down-zoning’ it to commercial.
There are serious traffic and environmental concerns that have not been fully explored. A small community of 6,000 people has no need for a superstore the size of three football fields.
Now it comes to light that borough officials have been giving preliminary approvals to Wal-Mart without the Council’s knowledge. You still have the right to shrink the size of this project, and make it less damaging to the environment and your local economy. Take back control over this project, and reign in sprawl before it engulfs your little community.”