On June 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters went to the Moon. We spent an evening helping residents of Moon township, Pennsylvania, get organized, and form the group Moon First, to do battle against a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. Wal-Mart has applied to build a 148,561 s.f. superstore on the site of an abandoned 1960s-era mall known as the West Hills Shopping Center, located on one of the community’s major intersections, University Boulevard and Brodhead road. There are also two major housing developments abutting the project on its western side. “We are working toward our No 1 goal,” Supervisor Chairman Tim McLaughlin told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in June. “To have the best Wal-Mart in Western Pennsylvania.” There’s lots of competition, because Wal-Mart has 15 stores within 25 miles of Moon, including a Wal-Mart three miles away from this site. Township officials developed a plan that would maintain the University Boulevard corridor’s commercial success. That plan was the Beers School Road Strategic Plan, which included a conceptual design for improvements to University Boulevard to improve traffic flow, enhance pedestrian access and mobility and develop streetscape improvements. The plan recommended implementing urban design changes to the corridor such as landscaping, sidewalks, building facades, public amenities and a gateway. The plan was presented and approved by the Moon Township Board of Supervisors in 2003. The township went further, and created the University Boulevard Overlay district, a tool to implement their strategic plan for the area. Then Wal-Mart entered the picture, and the strategic plan went out the window. In January of 2007, the public learned that the West Hills Shopping Center, had been sold to Wal-Mart for $4.7 million. During their review of Wal-Mart’s preliminary plan, the Supervisors quickly became concerned over the potential traffic congestion at the already difficult intersection. Chairman McLaughlin told Wal-Mart representatives at the end of April that he didn’t want to go to his grave knowing that his board was responsible for creating a traffic gridlock. “We have a quality of life that is outstanding,” McLaughlin said. “We want to protect our resident’s quality of life. We don’t want the center of our township to become a gridlock.” Another supervisor said he thought Wal-Mart’s traffic study was flawed. The overlay district has a series of design guidelines that were created to heighten the public amenities in the area, to improve traffic flow and enhance pedestrian access. Wal-Mart has asked the supervisors for a conditional use modification of many of these design features, because they clash with a traditional big box store. The objective of the University Boulevard overlay district was to create a district for “regional scale mixed use development,” not suburban sprawl. Wal-Mart cannot meet the requirement for ground floor transparency (i.e. windows), and the overlay district flatly states: “Buildings which exhibit long, flat facades and continuous linear strip development are prohibited.” The parking lot does not conform to the design guidelines, so Wal-Mart has asked the township to make the overlay district fit the retailer’s needs — rather than the reverse. If the supervisors ignore the township’s Comprehensive Plan, the Beers Road strategic plan, and the purpose of the overlay district — they can now expect legal hassles from their own taxpayers. On July 2nd, the Supervisors met to consider a series of variances Wal-Mart wanted from the township’s zoning rules. In a meeting that ran late into the night, the Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject the retailer’s preliminary development plan. As many as 90 residents crammed into the municipal building to voice their concerns. One resident described the proposal as a “10-pound building [sitting] on this 5-pound site.” John Augustine of Moon First asked the township to allow an independent engineering firm to review Wal-Mart’s plan. In the end, Supervisors Marvin Eicher, Michael Hopper and Jim Vitale opposed the plans, but Supervisors Chairman Tim McLaughlin and Frank Sinatra voted to support a sprawling suburban design. Wal-Mart walked out of the room with four approved variances — including a narrowed setback provision that allows the company to build within 10 feet of the property line of a large residential complex that abuts the project. “We are evaluating our various options to decide what we want to do,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the Beaver County Times. “There is no timetable at this point.” The Supervisors will now write up their decision, spelling out their findings of fact for rejected the preliminary plan. During the hearing, Wal-Mart presented a computer simulation of the projected traffic levels in Moon in 10 year. According to the County Times, the simulation showed traffic waiting to turn left onto Brodhead Road backing up on University Boulevard in queue of 18 cars. Motorists could wait through three light cycles to make it onto Brodhead. Wal-Mart claimed that the PennDOT had approved their traffic plan, but there was no evidence of that study entered into the record. Supervisor Eichler kept to the zoning issues. “Their plans just didn’t meet the requirements of our ordinances or the intent of them. We want developers to come into the community, but we want them to meet our standards. They might be high standards, but I believe the quality you expect is the quality you get,” he said. The Supervisor told the Pittsburg Tribune-Review, “They failed to properly address our ordinance. They need to readdress the ordinances and resubmit the plan.” Which is exactly what Wal-Mart will now do. “They can start all over again and do it clean,” Supervisor Vitale said.
As soon as the Supervisors issue their written decision, Wal-Mart will be back in Moon, trying to “do it clean.” One local newspaper said the Supervisors “oppose the plans, even though the development was projected to generate an additional $125,000 a year in property-tax revenue and up to $65,000 a year more in earned-income taxes, and create up to 500 new jobs.” These figures, which came from Wal-Mart, are all gross figures, that do not factor in the cost of the project to the township, such as police, fire and road maintenance, nor the loss of jobs and revenues that will take place at other businesses in town. Supervisor Marvin Eichler appropriately responded, “That wasn’t part of my consideration.” But the facts he was presented with by the newspaper were inaccurate and misleading. The demise of the West Hills Shopping Center has given the township a unique opportunity to begin to reinvent its core commercial area, to reflect more of a mixed-use village feel, with smaller retail, office uses, and even residential. Moon is a township with roughly 24,000 people. It is not a huge urban center, and it is not a sprawling suburban area. This site is not far from an infamous Wal-Mart landslide in Kilbuck, Pennsylvania, which closed down a major roadway and buried Wal-Mart’s hopes of ever building a store at the location. The Moon township site also has some geological issues. According to Wal-Mart, “there is an existing landslide on the south of the development. This slope does not have an adequate factor of safety against slope movement in its present condition.” Residents in Moon want an independent analysis of the slope, as well as an independent review of the traffic plan, and a fiscal impact study. The Supervisors can ask Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of all these studies — and let the township hire independent consultants. Even the “best” Wal-Mart is not good enough for Moon if it congests traffic, raises crime, harms abutting residential values, and violates the intent of the overlay district. If Wal-Mart ever opens, the Kmart diagonally across road will close, as well as one or two existing grocery stores. The project will steal most of its sales from the other Wal-Mart nearby. This is the kind of cannibalism that Wal-Mart now avoids — and if the company had not bought the land a year and a half ago, the retailer might have already scrubbed this project, as they have done in 70 other locations in the past year. Readers are urged to email Supervisor Chairman Tim McLaughlin at [email protected] with the following message: “Mr. Chairman, Now that the township has rejected Wal-Mart’s preliminary plans, please give the company a copy of the overlay district, and ask them to return with a much smaller store that will not require several new stop lights on Broadhead, that will not remain open all night, that meets all the parking and design standards in the district, and that is truly a mixed-use development. Then ask them to underwrite the cost of an independent traffic impact study, slope stabilization study, a fiscal impact study, a noise study, a lighting/glare study, and an assessment of their impact on abutting residential properties. You have the right under your zoning code to deny this project, and use incompatibility with the overlay district with traffic congestion as just two reasons. Most of the objections to this plan are scale-related. If you write up your findings of fact, no Wal-Mart lawsuit will overturn your decision to deny. There are more than 4,000 Wal-Mart stores, but only one Moon township. Protect the residents of Moon first, and don’t settle for the best Wal-Mart — because sometimes the best just isn’t good enough.”