Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Wal-Mart projects are a “done deal.” This week, a small Georgia community became the 57th. site that Wal-Mart has either abandoned or delayed since last June. Just two days ago residents in Duluth, Georgia received similar good news from Wal-Mart. Now another Georgia community has learned that it ain’t over ’till the fat company sings. This week, the Fat Company was singing ‘Rainy night in Georgia.’ As recently as February, 2008, the group Smart Growth Forsyth County (SGFC) was trying to make the best of our what seemed to be a done deal. The group was against building a Wal-Mart superstore on Hwy 141 in southern Forsyth County, and had developed a series of “conditions” that they wanted the county to pursue with the retailer: 1) Wal-Mart would agree to shrink its store from 175,000 s.f. to 122,000 s.f. 2) Wal-Mart would shrink the size of its parking lot. 3) Wal-Mart would change its design to ‘ensure the full integrity’ of the stream on the property. 4) Wal Mart would agree to five years of continuous water quality monitoring along the stream. 5) Wal-Mart would appoint a community representative to monitor the buffer encroachment, construction of the wetland and removal of standing dead trees that pose a safety hazard to pedestrians. 6) Wal Mart would agree to close the store at 11 PM and open it no earlier than 7 AM. 7) Wal Mart would relocate the entrance to their parking lot so that it was not to be a shared entrance with the residential neighborhood. Smart Growth managed to get the county to issue a “stop work” order on the site due to the identification of several intermittent streams and wetlands on the property. In August, 2007, a state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) variance was granted to Wal-Mart, but Smart Growth appealed that decision, charging that the developer had failed to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” impact to the streams as required by Georgia law. Smart Growth also had a federal suit pending regarding Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over state waters on the property. The SGFC said that the building of a big box store by any retailer would have significant negative impacts to the streams and wetlands on the property, which would have downstream economic, environmental, and quality of life impacts that must be considered and addressed. “SGFC believes that a development of significant size on that parcel fails to balance the competing interests of the community, business and the environment,” the group wrote. “SGFC believes that the County Unified Development Code sufficiently protects this balance, that these rules should be strictly enforced and that these laws, rules and regulations address these dimensions in an appropriate way. It is on this basis that Smart Growth has fought this battle.” This week, after years of legal battles, the citizens of Forsyth came out on top — and the done deal became undone. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Wal-Mart has withdrawn from Forsyth, and four years of controversy. The company said its decision was based on its June, 2007 growth plan slowdown, first announced to shareholders at the Fayetteville, Arkansas annual meeting. As Wal-Mart often does, its spokesman praised the local area in the same breath that they rejected them as a store site. “While this decision is certainly an appropriate one from a business standpoint, it takes nothing away from the fact that Forsyth is an excellent community and a great place to do business,” Wal-Mart’s senior manager of public affairs told the newspaper.
In 2007, Wal-Mart opened a new store on Atlanta Highway in Forsyth County. Although residents have been fighting this location since 2004, Wal-Mart continued to push for the site as recently as February, 2008, when a 3-2 majority of the Forsyth County Commission ruled with Smart Growth, overturning a decision from May,2007 by the county Zoning Board of Appeals that would have allowed Wal-Mart to build a 175,000 s.f. store and obtain a stream buffer variance. Wal-Mart had planned to build a bridge over the stream to let customers reach the store.
SGFC basically used their organization, and its fund-raising capacity, to hold off Wal-Mart long enough to see the project die. There was no way the group could have predicted this outcome, but dozens of communities across the country have celebrated a victory when Wal-Mart turned and ran. If the retailer had not been put off for 4 years, it is certain that this supercenter would have been built and open by now. What used to be a four month process in Forsyth County, turned into a four year pitched battle. When Wal-Mart looked at the prospect of continued legal challenges, and the proximity of other superstores nearby, another store in Forsyth County fell off the priority list. Smart Growth outlasted Wal-Mart. For more background information, or the help the group pay its bills, go to www.SmartGrowth-Forsyth.org.