A Wal-Mart proposal in Virginia has risen like a vampire from the dead to terrorize an entire neighborhood. On February 3, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Tennessee developer was trying to build 204,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore across from the Clearbrook, Virginia Elementary School. But a group called Citizens for Smart Growth challenged HolRob Investments, the developer, and the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. HolRob tried to have the citizen’s lawsuit dismissed, but the developer’s motion was denied by the court, and the project went to a Circuit Court judge. The CSG group charged that the project’s review process was collapsed into just six weeks, ending in a 4-1 vote by the County Board in October, 2006. The citizen’s group wanted the case remanded back to the County’s Planning Commission, with a full traffic study to be done this time. The group retained Richmond, Virginia attorney Phillip Strother, who also served as the victorious lead counsel for citizens in Front Royal, Virginia before the Virginia Supreme Court. The residents pointed out that the land Wal-Mart wanted was intended for a “village concept” in the county’s Overlay District guidelines. The Clearbrook Overlay District Concept calls for small commercial and retail development similar in feeling to a village street — the antithesis of a Wal-Mart supercenter. “The first time the overlay is questioned the county rolls [over],” one CSG member complained. “Some folks have said we’re doing away with the overlay,” the County’s Administrator said “But they’re complying with the overlay” by seeking the special-use permit it allows,” he added. “All of us hoped for more of a type of development” in style and size — things like doctor’s offices, sit-down restaurants and small office buildings. The county granted a special use permit to Wal-Mart that allowed them to completely ignore the 50,000 s.f. size cap suggested in the overlay zone — and instead build 4 times larger. But the major issue is traffic, CSG said — the fact that the state Department of Transportation never did a final traffic study. CSG also has produced its own rendering of what a “Clearbrook Old Towne Village” concept should look like, with “brown and stone exteriors…pitched green roofs… a kiosk [that guides] folks to Tanglewood and Valley View Malls…sidewalks that allow people to easily travel through the village…trees around the village buffer the development from the adjacent Blue Ridge Parkway.” In approving a Wal-Mart supercenter, and throwing out the size cap, the county clearly pulled a bait ‘n switch on local residents. In October, 2006, when Wal-Mart received County approval, the retailer predicted that work on the store would begin in the first quarter of 2007. That was never to be. Wal-Mart revealed that approval of the new supercenter would result in the closing of a smaller Wal-Mart discount store about a mile north of the supercenter site. The “old” Wal-Mart is 17 years old — about the end of its lifespan for the retailer. Wal-Mart claims it is just leasing the existing store, and would have to negotiate with the landlord, yet city tax records, indicate the building is owned by “Wal-Mart Stores Inc.” On April 28, 2007, the anti-Wal-Mart group contacted Sprawl-Busters with an update. “The circuit court ruled to dismiss our lawsuit. ALL the traffic now will use the one entrance/exit. Wal-Mart just assumed they could get a 2nd entrance at the upscale Landrover dealership, but they were told ‘NO.’ We, of course, were all told 60% of the traffic would never reach the nearby school. The traffic will include Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart family, school children, etc. Residents will share one traffic light. This is the only entrance and exit into Clearbrook Elementary School and the only way EMS can access Route 220. Route 220 is dangerous enough now and will only get more dangerous. The area is also slated for I-73, which means more profits for Wal-Mart and more crime for us when the interstate arrives.” Judge Robert Doherty ruled that the county’s decision to allow the construction met the legal standard of being “fairly debatable,” that even if “objective and reasonable persons” had differing opinions about it, the board of supervisors’ decision was reasonable and legal. The judge ruled that the traffic impact studies paid for by the developer were adequate and that the county review was not “arbitrary, capricious, irrational or unreasonable.” The county said it was “pleased” with the court’s ruling. But Citizens for Smart Growth Roanoke said the special-use permit violates the intent of a special Clearbrook Village Overlay District that the county adopted in 2000. “It is not the role of the Court to decide whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be built on the land in question,” Judge Doherty wrote. The court’s job “is to decide whether the Board, as the legislative body, complied with the law when it passed the ordinance that rezoned the land and granted the special-use permit.” But on May 14, 2008, everything changed. Sprawl-Busters learned that after more than a year and a half of opposition and court battles, Wal-Mart pulled the plug in Clearbrook. Roanoke County Administrator Elmer Hodge told the Roanoke Times that the project had been canceled. Opponents of the project couldn’t believe their good fortune. “I’m as elated as they come,” said Pamela Berberich, who brought the lawsuit against the project, and helped finance it. “Everybody told me that what I was doing was fruitless, but maybe my efforts came to pass after all.” But what goes up, must come down. This week, Roanoke.com reports that Wal-Mart has renewed its interest in the Clearbrook site, and has seven weeks to reassemble a dozen pieces of land that it had options to purchase. If Wal-Mart can do that, Roanoke County officials are prepared to honor the special permit that was granted for this store two years ago. A Wal-Mart spokesman gave Roanoke.com their standard corporate line: “We are pleased that the developer is working toward an agreement with the landowners and we look forward to being able to better serve our Roanoke customers with a new store.” But local residents are not sure who the developer is at this point. Holrob Investments appears to have dissipated, but the new developer has not been named. Like the walking dead, Wal-Mart is back in Clearbrook.
That special overlay district was created seven years ago “to promote future development that is consistent with the current character of Clearbrook.” The district was not supposed to have more strip development, but contains a provision to allow proposals larger than 50,000 s.f. to get a special permit — which opens up the crypt. Despite county approval over the objections of area residents, the developer never nailed down the traffic issues related to the entry and exit to the site. In May, Wal-Mart pulled their plans, saying that Holrob had failed to reach financial buyouts with some of the landowners. Some of the options to buy eventually lapsed, leaving the project without the property it needed. Wal-Mart complained last May that “when the cost of the project is too high, it becomes unfeasible to move forward.” But a couple of months later, rumors began again that the stake had not been driven through the heart of this project, and that the Wal-Mart monster was still alive. County officials are doing what they can to help the project get back on its feet. The county’s lawyer told Roanoke.com that Wal-Mart “could make a very strong argument that it exhibited its intent to go forward” despite the two year gap, by showing that it had been slowed down by the citizen’s litigation and the Virginia Department of Transportation approval of its traffic plans. But Wal-Mart still has to go back now and refresh its buy options with the current property owners before the special-use permit deadline runs out in late October. If Wal-Mart does not control the parcels by then, the project will not be able to get a building permit. The county’s lawyer said, “I feel sorry for a lot of the citizens of Clearbrook. This obviously is very stressful for them, keeping them all churned up.” “It’s a big disappointment to me that this has been so secretive,” said Judy Hawks, one of the opponents of the project. Last May, letters were apparently sent out to some homeowners who had optioned their homes to HolRob. Those options became worthless. Instead of going with a new supercenter, Wal-Mart renewed its “lease” on its existing store — which the retailer appears to own anyway. “Whether they’ll reconsider in the long range, we don’t know,” the County’s Administrator told the newspaper. Some of the homeowners “already had made other arrangements. It’s very unfortunate for them,” one county official said. “We don’t know if we’re back to ground zero, or if there might be another company willing to move in… it would be unfortunate if they are pulling out sooner than is necessary,” the County’s Administrator said last May. Readers are urged to email Richard Flora, the Chairman of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors at [email protected], with this message: “Now that Wal-Mart is trying to bring its monstrous project back from the dead, its time for the county to tighten up the Clearbrook Overlay District to simply impose a 50,000 s.f. cap on retail building size, and eliminate the special permit provision, which was abused in this case. The intent of the Overlay zone was clearly to keep scale compatible with the character of the surrounding area. To prevent this kind of abuse from happening again, put a firm cap on size, and don’t sell out homeowners to the highest commercial bidder. A number of landowners were hurt by this process, and the special permit loophole needs to be closed. I hope the landowners who optioned their land to Wal-Mart have learned the hard way what it can be like to deal with a huge corporation. This project violates your overlay district, and you should strictly enforce the special permit expiration. The county should tell Wal-Mart not to lift this project from the grave unless they are willing to shrink the size of their footprint and sit down and talk with neighbors about what they want for the community they call home.”