Home Depot’s plans to build a 123,423 s.f. store on 15 acres of forested land in Wheaton, Illinois has been washed out by a flood of citizen opposition. On March 7th, the Wheaton Plan Commission voted 7-0 against rezoning the land commercial for the building supply megastore. The unanimous vote was a turn-around for the Commission, which in early February had voted 3-3 on the rezoning proposal. According to local sources, Home Depot has tried to nail this property down for the past two years. But at this point, residents have raised serious concerns about flooding/storm water runoff, and traffic. As one Plan Commissioner told Home Depot: “This site looks like it’s being overstressed and strained.” That might well describe the emotions the project has generated among residents in Wheaton and nearby Winfield. Undeterred by local opposition, Home Depot’s Real Estate manager told The Wheaton Sun in February “we’re very confident this project will move forward.” But as it moved forward, it ran into a storm of resistance. Mayor James Carr has stated he has “no idea whether it will go or won’t go,” but the decision is up to the City Council. The Chicago Tribune called the Home Depot debate “one of the city’s most controversial development projects in years.” Home Depot has two strikes against it from the outset: 1) the land is zoned multifamily residential and 2) the Comprehensive Plan recommends that the land be used for residential purposes. The only approach Home Depot’s lawyer could come up with was to assert that “the comprehensive plan was not studied closely as it was being revised and the site was left residential because it was deemed too difficult to develop a site divided among multiple owners.” But Plan Commission Chair Mike Mallon, who helped draft the Comprehensive Plan, which is only 3 months old, disagreed with Home Depot’s second guessing. “Multiple ownership was a consideration,” he told the Daily Herald, “but not the only one. That area is the gateway to our community, and there’s a natural area there we wanted to keep.” Residents have produced a study which shows that the value of trees on this forested 15 acres is close to $2.5 million. County officials are eyeing the property as a forest preserve. Activist Kelly Joslin told reporters “It would just be a crime for those trees to be cut down by a company that just announced that they would stop selling growth lumber.” Home Depot has promised to save at least 121 trees on the property, and add another 168 evergreens as a buffer. But such offers are seen as too little too late to save the densely forested parcel. To make matters worse, Home Depot has “requested financial assistance” from the city in the form of a sales tax rebate, or a waiver of fees to acquire city-owned property. This request for taxpayer’s subsidy did not go over well with the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, and the Mayor has also raised issues with such corporate welfare. So the city is being asked to financially help the world’s wealthiest building supply chain to: rezone land, ignore the Comp Plan, deforest the parcel, increase the potential for stormwater flooding, devalue abutting residential land, negatively impact existing merchants, create traffic gridlock — and all for one company. The Plan Commission didn’t buy what Home Depot is selling, and now the hammer is in the hands of the City Council. Residents are hoping the City will nail this shut within the next few weeks.
One other important concern that apparently has not been underscored in Wheaton is the issue of toxic fire. Home Depot has had two very serious chemical fires. In Quincy, MA and Tempe, AZ, Home Depot stores have had multi-million dollar toxic fires. In the Quincy fire, toxic fumes endangered the local neighborhood, and fire officials were concerned about public safety. Home Depots store thousands of gallons of flammable, hazardous materials: solvents, lawn chemicals, paints, etc. Many small towns do not have the fire fighting capacity to knock down a fire of such origin. Especially where residential property is located nearby, local officials should seriously weigh what would happen if such a repository of chemicals should ever catch fire. For further information about the Wheaton opposition to Home Depot, contact [email protected].