Large scale retail projects in the town of Blacksburg, Virginia will face a lot more scrutiny because of a new zoning law passed yesterday. On May 14, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the town of Blacksburg was going to vote on land use ordinance 1450, which would limit the size of retail buildings in town to 80,000 s.f. Larger buildings would require a special use permit issued by the town council. Jubilant residents tell Sprawl-Busters today that they have at least succeeded in getting their zoning law passed. “Last night, after a marathon 5-hour public hearing,” citizens wrote, “the Blacksburg Town Council passed, by a 7-0 vote, an ordinance that will require a special use permit for any retail over 80,000 square feet. A grassroots effort by Blacksburg United for Responsible Growth (BURG) brought in petitions with over 3,500 signatures. This was more than the total number of votes cast in the last, hotly contested, mayoral election. Speakers at the hearing in favor of the ordinance outnumbered those opposed by a ratio of 8 to 1. Almost all of the opposition to the ordinance came from individuals with a direct stake in a development on South Main Street that includes a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The ordinance gives us the breathing room we need to have the thorough study and public discussion of the best way of regulating big box development. We will be looking at ways to strengthen the protections of the new ordinance. In order to circumvent the new law and the will of the town’s residents, the developers of the South Main project have already sued the town. They have asked the circuit court to retroactively award them vested rights to build their supercenter. BURG is considering joining the case on the town’s side. We are elated at the unequivocal statement that the Town Council has made, but are still focused on winning the case and stopping this project that would be disastrous for the town.” According to the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times, the new ordinance was designed to give the town council more control over the kind of retail development that occurs in Blacksburg, and make it more harder for “big box” retailers, such as Wal-Mart Supercenter, to move into town. A special use permit would be granted only when a developer can demonstrate to the council that their retail store will be beneficial to the Blacksburg community. The council must first determine if the retailer satisfies light and noise pollution regulations, pedestrian accessibility, traffic density and other standards. The council will be able to impose restrictions on any special permit issued. The new ordinance was proposed in response to a proposal from an Ohio developer to build a 186,000 s.f. Wal-Mart Supercenter. No less than 3 organizations backed the new ordinance: BURG, Citizens First and Downtown Merchants of Blacksburg, all spoke in support of ordinance 1450 last night. According to the newspaper, “hundreds of Blacksburg residents flooded in and out of the meeting throughout the night to voice their opinion of the proposed ordinance.” Virginia Tech students, graduate students, professors, and alumni all spoke in support of the new restrictions. The proposed site is also near the Margaret Beeks Elementary School, and both parents and children raised public safety issues. The students and teachers came to the hearing with posters supporting ordinance 1450, chanting “S.O.S! Save our school! S.O.S! Save our school!” A former Mayor of Blacksburg helped form a group called Citizens against ordinance 1450. The group was formed, they say, to make sure “our citizens have good jobs, lower property taxes and a variety of shopping choices.” Such groups are usually created directly by the landowner, the developer and Wal-Mart. As the newspaper noted, “There was noticeably less support for the opposition present Tuesday night at the town meeting, and when the 7-0 vote in favor was handed down early Wednesday morning.”
One BURG member described this conflict as “a struggle between the interests of working families and corporate profits.” If so, chalk one up for working families last night. But don’t count Wal-Mart out in Blacksburg yet. The developer has taken his case to Montgomery County Circuit Court, arguing that the town cannot apply the new ordinance to their Wal-Mart project, because the rezoning ordinance for their project passed prior to ordinance 1450, and the Wal-Mart should therefore be “grandfathered.” The court hearing is set for June 7.