You would think by now that local officials would know not to bother reading impact studies that are paid for by big box consultants — but it’s a slow learning curve.
On August 21, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart’s wanted to get into Powhatan County,Virginia — and the response from neighbors was predictable.
Powhatan County has almost doubled its population since 1990. As of 2008, the population hovered around 28,000 people.
But the county is in a period of painful change due to its rapid growth. “Slowly but surely, Powhatan is undergoing a transformation,” the official county website admits. “No longer can workers count on lifetime jobs with mainstay manufacturers, and the former banking hub is now more like a financial byway.”
In April of 2009, rumors began sweeping the county that Wal-Mart had its eye on Powhatan, and according to the newspaper Powhatan Today, the very shadow of a Wal-Mart “has sent an anxious hum” through the county. As far back as the fall of 2008 a traffic impact study along Route 60, west of Route 675 was being conducted for an unnamed, 170,000 s.f. retail center on nearly 54 acres of land. The land is not properly zoned, and has to be rezoned by the county to allow the project. A piece of the property is zoned Residential Commercial, but another portion of the site is zoned Light Industrial — and this piece will have to be changed.
On October 13, 2009, Sprawl-Busters noted that the group Powhatan Grow Smart held its first public meeting. Wal-Mart officially filed its plans for a zone change on October 1st. The retailer has asked the County to rezone 33.57 acres of a 53 acre lot in eastern Powhatan from residential commercial, commercial and light industrial to general commercial. If the County does not approve the rezoning, the project is dead.
Powhatan Grow Smart (PGS) pointed out that a suburban big box footprint is incompatible with the county’s comprehensive land use plan. The group said Wal-Mart was inharmonious with the plan’s goal to “retain existing business,” and with its focus on businesses “that are compatible with the rural character and overall quality of life… ” The comprehensive plan states that desirable businesses would be “small to medium size [and] have a moderate land-use intensity… We want growth without big box.”
On January 19, 2010, the Wal-Mart project in Powhatan hit a speedbump. According to Powhatan Today, the board of supervisors voted to pay for a third-party review of Wal-Mart’s traffic analysis. The county’s transportation study group asked the supervisors for a “global study” looking at a broad area in eastern Powhatan where the proposed Wal-Mart would be built, including traffic impacts to the roads that feed Route 60. Instead of asking for Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of such an independent study, the supervisors put the bill on county taxpayers, and narrowed the breadth of the impact study. One supervisor said, “Wal-Mart will have to get the roads in order. I’m not going to vote to allow tax money to be spent [on traffic consultants] so Wal-Mart can come to the county.”
On June 1, 2010, the Powhatan Planning Commission voted 4-1 to recommend rezoning land for the county’s first Wal-Mart. According to the local media, about 200 residents showed up for the hearing, and most of those who testified were against the plan. The county’s planning staff supported the rezoning as well.
But when the project came before the Powhatan Board of Supervisors this week, local officials tabled the rezoning indefinitely. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the delay was only because Wal-Mart was still submitting changes to the plan.
At the hearing, an economic impact study — paid for by Wal-Mart — was introduced to Supervisors. All studies paid for by Wal-Mart make the projects look like they were built in Lake Wobegon — where all the site plans are good-looking, and the traffic flow above average. Wal-Mart had their Richmond-based consultant write an op-ed in the local newspaper, extolling the project. The study used “standard computer simulation” to predict what would happen in Powhatan if Wal-Mart opened a superstore. Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart’s consultant found “overall, the proposed new store would generate approximately $652,000 in annual county revenue, 367 new jobs, and $21.5 million in total economic activity.”All gross numbers, not net.
The consultant, A. Fletcher Mangum wrote, “our study looked at sales tax revenue growth in six Virginia localities that are comparable to Powhatan and in which a new Wal-Mart was constructed between 1991 and 2003. That analysis showed that, on average, those localities experienced a net 14.3% increase in sales tax revenue after the Wal-Mart was constructed.” But within that total, there were some retailers that gained, and some that lost big. The population in Powhatan has been growing three times faster than the rest of Virginia, so sales growth might have been even larger without a Wal-Mart, which capture many of its sales from existing merchants. The study did not look at sales growth in localities without a Wal-Mart.
A spokesman for Powhatan Grow Smart told the Supervisors, “Anyone who believes Wal-Mart will bail us out and be the county’s savior is dreaming. I get the feeling that Powhatan’s for sale and it’s being sold to the highest bidder, and right now that happens to be Wal-Mart.”
Wal-Mart’s lawyer pointed to nearby Ashland, where a bitter battle ended up with a Wal-Mart being built over strong community opposition. “Those fears [in Ashland] were not realized,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer claimed. “Local businesses actually compliment Wal-Mart as a good neighbor.”
But one locally owned drug store that has been open for 35 years, spoke out against the plan. “If this rezoning is approved, there’s a high probability we’ll have to close one of our pharmacies. We’d like to be able to celebrate 40.”
Sometime in the fall of 2009, Wal-Mart set up a website to promote its plan, at http://www.walmartinpowhatan.com/. The tax revenue benefits are misleading, because Wal-Mart fails to subtract the cost to the county of having a big box store. If one of the Food Lion grocery stores closes, and one of the pharmacies, the net job creation will be much lower. “The long-term impact of inviting one big-box retailer into Powhatan will surely open up Pandora’s Big Box and we will never be able to close it again!” warns Powhatan Grow Smart.
Powhatan Grow Smart said last January that regardless of what happened to the Wal-Mart proposal, the group was going to push for a 50,000 s.f. limit on the size of retail buildings. “Whether or not we get [Wal-Mart], we are going to suggest a cap on store [sizes]” to the board of supervisors, the group said.
Readers are urged to email Robert Cosby, the Chairman of the Powhatan County, Virginia Board of Supervisors at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Cosby, Now that Wal-Mart has applied for its massive rezoning plan, its time for the Supervisors to lead growth, instead of follow it. The parcel Wal-Mart wants is not properly zoned. You have the legal right to deny rezoning. There are also wetlands on the parcel that need to be protected.
The scale of this project is simply incompatible with the rest of the surrounding built environment on Route 60 and 675. This proposed superstore is nearly three times the size of a football field. You have six Wal-Mart superstores within 22 miles, and most of the sales at any new store will come from existing merchants. Don’t rezone this parcel. Promote ‘restoration and preservation’ in the county instead. You have your county Comprehensive Plan to back you up.
This kind of suburban sprawl has no place in your small community. Wal-Mart’s impact study was just what you expect to get from a consultant they buy. That study was flawed, and did not look at the municipal costs of bringing Wal-Mart in — the traffic, the crime, the added public safety costs. It also did not produce a net income and jobs figure that subtracted out the lost jobs that will occur at local grocery stores. Did Mangum tell you that the independent consultant Retail Forward said in 2003 that for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two local grocery stores close. And do you really think Ashland is thriving because the small boutique stores are still downtown?
You have the right to reject a rezoning — it is not a right — and to avoid the biggest land use mistake your small town will ever make.”