Wal-Mart found out the hard way last night, that a superstore is no way to treat a Lady. On February 28, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had decided to appeal a decision against them in the picturesque little community of Lady’s Island, South Carolina. Wal-Mart applied for a permit to build a 195,000 s.f. store, plus two other retail stores, and a fast-food restaurant — all on 26 acres of wooded land. Lady’s Island lies within the city limits of Beaufort, South Carolina. The city of Beaufort has a population of just over 12,000. Beaufort boasts of its “Landmark Historic District,” its “horse-drawn carriage” tours, its “unique, fully restored central business district filled with shops and restaurants, all within walking distance of beautiful downtown inns and hotels.” In short, it’s a charming “low country” southern town just minutes from the beaches of Hilton Head. As the city says, “Beaufort has it all!” But the area also has plenty of Wal-Marts. There are three Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Beaufort, including a supercenter on Robert Smalls Parkway in Beaufort. So there is no market need for more Wal-Marts. “I think it could be fairly devastating to (our business),” said the owner of a local hardware store. “It will affect every business on Lady’s Island. (Wal-Mart does) everything from hardware and gift shops to restaurants and carpet and bicycle shops. They affect everybody.” The City Council’s Vision Statement says that “Beaufort is a community of choice, building on our history and working in harmony with our natural environment to provide diverse opportunities for the highest quality of life.” The city hired a consulting firm to deal with traffic on Route 21, the Boundary Street Corridor. The city says its concerned with “the preservation of open space, particularly Beaufort’s waterfront viewshed,” and has adopted an Open Space Master Plan. Given all this concern for their visual image, and historic character, it’s hard to see how a Wal-Mart on Route 21 with 12,000 or more car trips a day fits into that Master Plan. Ironically, the City Council has directed staff to identify “those economic sectors that will increase wage levels, provide training in desirable skills, and diversify the economic base of the City.” That’s certainly not a Wal-Mart. The city set up a Redevelopment Commission to assist “in the recruitment and retention of high quality industry, without compromising Beaufort’s unique quality of life.” Wal-Mart filed its site plan with the city on January 18th, but on February 11th, Beaufort’s planning director said the development was not compatible with the site’s master plan, which dates back to 2003, when the land was first annexed into the city. The master plan said there would be 21 buildings on the site, with the largest building being 71,000 s.f. In response to the planning director’s decision, the engineering firm under contract to Wal-Mart appealed the city’s decision that the store does not comply with the site’s zoning. The appeal, as filed by ADC Engineering, charges that the site plan meets the city’s zoning standards for the property near the intersection of Sea Island Parkway and Airport Circle. The engineering firm’s appeal was filed on behalf of Wal-Mart. The appeal was sent to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. Last night, March 24th, the Beaufort Zoning Board of Appeals, after more than an hour of debate, upheld the February decision against the Wal-Mart supercenter. The retailer was slam-dunked 5-0 by the ZBOA, which said a supercenter was not compatible with the site’s master plan for a business complex with a number of smaller buildings. According to the Beaufort Gazette, Zoning Board member Joan Sedlacek told residents she didn’t think the city needed another Wal-Mart. “Nine million people in New York. There’s one Macy’s serving all those people,” she said. “Why do we need two Wal-Marts in Beaufort? To pursue this (in court), I would consider this a hostile takeover of Beaufort County.” It certainly helped the zoning board that the City Council chambers were packed with local residents opposed to the project. Wal-Mart’s Charleston lawyer told the newspaper his client was fighting “an entrenched anti-Wal-Mart sentiment.” “It looks like the odds are stacked against me,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer admitted. Wal-Mart complained that this project had begun with meetings with Beaufort officials back in October of 2007, and that the city’s objection to the plan “came out of nowhere.” But Beaufort’s lawyer countered that it was the city Planner’s role to make the proper decision, not an quick one. In her defense, the Planning Director pointed out that Wal-Mart’s plan called for only one large building with a parking lot in front — very different than the illustrative plan in the development the city had envisioned. Wal-Mart’s lawyer said his client was not given the chance to be flexible and change their plan. But the executive director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation testified that Wal-Mart was incompatible with Beaufort’s aesthetics. “Show me a Wal-Mart that will fit the architecture of our small town,” Thompson said. “You won’t find it.” Now the wait begins to see if Wal-Mart will continue to defy local wishes by filing an appeal in Circuit Court.
You won’t find a Wal-Mart on Lady’s Island — for now. It was clear from local response that not a single member of that board wanted a huge superstore on Lady’s Island. Wal-Mart tried to argue that the city’s illustrative plan for the site was just a guideline — but the huge store Wal-Mart proposed completely ignored the city’s choice for that site, and did so at its own peril. Wal-Mart often puts a superstore on the table, assuming that local officials will cast aside any plans they might have had, and embrace the Wal-Mart project, lured by the promise of tax revenues and jobs. But sometimes even the phony economics are not enough to overcome strong public opposition, and the obvious incompatible nature of a store almost four times the size of a football field. The property Wal-Mart wanted is zoned to allow up to 250,000 s.f. of commercial space, and another 340,000 s.f. for light industrial or commercial activity. An agreement on the zoning for the property was supposed to terminate in February, but the City Council approved an extension, trying to be flexible to allow Wal-Mart to present its case to the city. They had their chance, and failed. Readers are urged to call Beaufort Mayor Bill Rauch at (843)524-1234. Tell Mayor Rauch: “You should be proud of the way your Planning Director stood up to Wal-Mart. Lady’s Island does not need a Wal-Mart superstore. The one on Robert Smalls Parkway is only minutes away. You can’t attract tourists with talk of your landmark historic downtown, and then clog Route 21 up with traffic and 24/7 superstores. This store doesn’t fit into your Master Plan or your Open Space Plan. This is not a form of economic development, because Wal-Mart will largely drain jobs from existing merchants. If Wal-Mart respects the city’s choice for its future development, they will pack their bags and leave. A Wal-Mart supercenter is no way to treat a Lady.”