About eight months ago, I first heard from residents of Spring Valley, Texas, a small community in the Houston market area. The community was organizing to stop the construction of a 208,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter along Interstate 10. This week, came the following news from Ron Kelm, a leader for the group that became known as Spring Valley First: “Good news from Spring Valley. The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 10-0 to deny the Wal-Mart application as proposed. They still have to meet again to list the reasons for denial in their report to the City Council.During the three sessions, we had 6 speak in support of Wal-Mart and 69 who were opposed. Many presentations were given and they were quite professional.” According to the Houston Chronicle, at one hearing, more than 300 people packed the Spring Branch Middle School Auditorium to present “a seemingly endless line” of residents against the supercenter plan. During hours of local hearings, Spring Valley First raised concerns about crime, noise and traffic at the proposed store. Local real estate agent John Byerly told the Commission that “in the 30 years I have been selling real estate, every buyer I dealt with did not want to be anywhere near a situation like this store.” Another resident,Tom Rusnek, a professor of architecture, presented the Commission with a 10-minute slide show of Wal-Mart stores in the Houston area, complete with leaking oil and battery acid, piled up storage containers, poorly maintained landscaping, and piles of trash and old tires. Rusnek said property values near the Dunvale, TX Wal-Mart fell nearly 12%, while values in Spring Valley rose nearly 11%. The Commission also heard testimony on the municipal cost of combating crime at Wal-Mart. Resident Bruce Spain said police costs to service Wal-Mart would eat up at least 50% of the tax revenue Wal-Mart would produce. “I am concerned that there will be 7,000 new potential targets for criminals,” Spain was quoted as saying by the Chronicle. “Wal-Mart will bring in twice the population of Spring Valley every day, and that is not compatible with our city.” After taking about 12 hours of public comment over a three-week period, the Planning & Zoning Commission completely slam-dunked Wal-Mart on a 10-0 vote. The Commission is preparing its written reasons for rejecting the plan, which will be forwarded to the Spring Valley City Council. When Wal-Mart learned the bad news, their public relations person told the Chronicle: “Obviously, we are very disappointed, We certainly would have preferred a recommendation for approval. Right now we really don’t know the reasons for the denial, so we are anxious to see the report once it is completed. I can’t say we are, or are not, surprised by the vote. We are just looking forward to further explanation.” P&Z Chairman Trey Hoffman criticized Wal-Mart for never responding to the city’s expectation that the company “demonstrate the proper relationship between the proposed development and surrounding uses.” The incompatibility of this enormouse big box development with nearby residential uses was one hurdle Wal-Mart could not cross. One Commissioner suggested that Wal-Mart needed to produce a “continuous operation clause” so that if their property was ever abandoned there would be a clause to require demolition so the property could be re-marketed. Texas has the largest number of “dead” Wal-Marts on the market in the nation.
The final chapter in the Spring Valley First battle to stop Wal-Mart is far from over. The City Council has the ultimate say over the project, and is not at all bound by the commission’s recommendation. (See the recent story from Lower Makefield, PA, where the City Council reversed the decision of the town’s Planning Board). But it is clear that the weight of public testimony was against the plan, and that the Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously rejected it. The city’s own comprehensive plan is not compatible with large scale commerical use of this land. It shouldn’t have taken local residents eight months to shoot this project down. If residents of Spring Valley really did come First, Wal-Mart would have long ago been off the table. For more information on Spring Valley, contact the SVF website at www.springvalleyfirst.org.