On May 30, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had become ensnared in a legal mess in the town of Blacksburg, Virginia. The town of Blacksburg adopted land use ordinance 1450, which limits the size of retail buildings in town to 80,000 s.f. Larger buildings require a special use permit issued by the town council. Wal-Mart clearly wants to ignore laws like ordinance 1450. Residents told Sprawl-Busters last year that they had succeeded in getting their zoning law passed. “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 supporting the ordinance. 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 sued the town. They asked the circuit court to retroactively award them vested rights to build their supercenter. 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 harder for “big box” retailers, such as the 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. 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. The developer, Fairmont Development Company, took its 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.” As this case meandered through the courts, both the town and Wal-Mart opponents ended up filing appeals to stop or control the superstore project. The Town Council has been seeking the ability to strictly regulate or stop the big-box project using ordinance 1450. The Blacksburg Board of Zoning Appeals voted in favor of the developer, and the developer won the first round in Montgomery County Circuit Court. But the town council, and the anti-Wal-Mart group BURG appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. This week, according to the Roanoke Times, Virginia Supreme Court. Justice Barbara Milano indicated that the Supreme Court would hear the appeals of the town and BURG against Wal-Mart. Justice Milano said the court would likely grant two appeals seeking to block construction of the superstore. The court convened what is called a “writ panel” which decides which of the appeals which have been filed will actually be accepted for hearings. The acceptance of the anti-Wal-Mart appeals is the first major step forward for the town and the citizen’s group. The court is expected to issue in writing its ruling within the next few weeks. Assuming the appeals are accepted for hearing, there will be no Wal-Mart superstore built in Blacksburg anytime soon.
According to the Roanoke Times, this court ruling could be a landmark decision on the side of granting communities the right to regulate developments in Virginia, versus the rights of property owners to develop land as they wish. These appeals are the only thing standing in between Wal-Mart and a ground-breaking. The absurdity of this town’s situation is that Wal-Mart already has a superstore less than 5 miles away in Christiansburg, Virginia, and a second superstore less than 11 miles away in Radford, Virginia. So the residents in this community of 41,300 people have several alternatives if they need access to cheap, Chinese imports. Readers are urged to email Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Rordam, Thanks to you and the town council for standing up to Wal-Mart in the Virginia Supreme Court. I am pleased that the High Court has agreed to hear your appeal, and that of the group BURG. This 186,000 s.f. Wal-Mart is the wrong size, and in the wrong place. It’s an example of suburban sprawl, that really has no place in Blacksburg land use. Your community already has two Wal-Mart supercenters within 11 miles, and those facilities are certainly within an easy distance of Blacksburg. I hope that the Supreme Court will give you the power to control the size, look and impact of this superstore using ordinance 1450. Please continue to fight for local land use controls, so that big corporations have to fit into small towns, and not the reverse.”