On August 10, 2004, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was left with no place to park its cars in Estero, Florida. A Hearing Examiner in Lee County Florida had turned down an appeal filed by Wal-Mart. The retailer was trying to build a 228,000 s.f. supercenter off Coconut Road in Estero. The store would be located on Route 41. Because of the significant amount of nearby residential property, Wal-Mart representatives said they would provide increased landscaping for the project, and give the store a “Mediterranean design” to blend in better with existing buildings. The company also said it would pay for a private access road for residents. Echoing comments made by Wal-Mart’s CEO recently at the company’s Annual Stockholder’s meeting, the local engineer pitching the project told residents: “Wal-Mart is an active community member. It acts as a good neighbor.” But many residents didn’t like the sound of a 4-foot earth and berm mound, plus a 6-foot high screening wall. Wal-Mart also offered to put their huge store 240 feet away from residential property, even though the town’s zoning code would have allowed them to move within 25 feet of residential property lines. To the north of the proposed site is a housing development called The Vines. Wal-Mart promised these residents that the company would pick up the one-time cost of a gated access road. However, the on-going maintenance costs for the road would fall to homeowners. One resident of The Vines was quoted as saying: “Do you think that is fair, that we should have to pay to get into our property?” The company had been seeking zoning approval to convert 3 parcels of land designated for smaller businesses, into parking lots to create enough room to handle the cars required by the county zoning code. In July of 2004, planners in Lee County, Florida turned thumbs down on Wal-Mart’s plans. Staffers cited overwhelming traffic on Route 41 as their reason for denial. The county staff report went to the Hearing Officer. The county staff report said the highway would operate at a “level of service” F, as in failing, if the Wal-Mart were built. The LOS is calculated based on car delays at various points on the roadway. Wal-Mart has been forced to work with county officials on the traffic, noise and appearance of their store, and now they have the county report working against them. The County complained that Route 41 might not get widened for at least another four years, and if the Wal-Mart was approved, it would make the current roadways fail — a violation of state growth laws that say roadways must be able to handle the increased traffic from a new project within three years of construction. According to The Naples News, Wal-Mart had to either go to court to reverse the Hearing Officer’s denial, or start another zoning process again from scratch, which could take more than a year. “We want to sit back and look at everything before making a decision,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper four years ago. The Hearing Officer said that changing the outparcels into parking was inconsistent with the zoning for the land that was approved in 1998. “A visual comparison of the proposed site plan and the approved Master Concept Plan clearly demonstrates there are significant differences between the two plans,” the decision states. The store on Coconut Road is one of two supercenters Wal-Mart wanted to build in Estero, angering many residents, who felt that two stores were two too many. Lee County’s director of Community Development, told the newspaper that the county was pleased with the hearing examiner’s decision, which rejected Wal-Mart’s argument that the real issue was the legality of using outparcels as parking. Now, four years later, Wal-Mart is still trying to build a supercenter in Estero. According to the News, a change in the way a U.S. 41 is classified could allow a new Wal-Mart to be built. Route 41 could be changed from a classification called “super-concurrency” to one called “concurrency.” If the road is scheduled for improvement within three years, then the proposed superstore can go forward. Super-concurrency means that Wal-Mart cannot begin construction until the widening of Route 41 begins. Wal-Mart is pressing Lee County officials again, coming up with a new traffic study, and hoping to be back before the County’s Planning council by November of 2008, and then to the County Commissioners by the spring. Wal-Mart hopes to begin building the store by March of 2010.
Wal-mart has a proposal on the table for the change and is requisitioning a new traffic study to say the road isn’t as bad as it is. Wal-Mart will still have to wait for a new traffic signal to go in at Estero Parkway, because now road construction there will increase the road’s traffic from 6,000 cars per day, to 30,000 cars on Estero Boulevard. The project also requires the state to take a few acres of land from an historic estate on the Estero River. Lee County Commissioners have refused to use county conservation money to buy the acreage, since it will lead to sprawl, not to conservation of land. The Wal-Mart proposal is simply incompatible with the Master Plan for the land in question. Lee County officials said that, and the Hearing Officer has affirmed it. Residents should always compare big box proposals to how the land is described — not just in the zoning code — but in the Comprehensive Land Use Plan as well. Readers are urged to contact Ray Judah, the Chairman of the Lee County Commissioners at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Judah, For many years you have been a leader in the environmental and conservation movement in Lee County and Florida. Your work on Conservation 2020 more than a decade ago led the way in the protection of environmentally sensitive land. You have also taken the lead in balancing growth management. The Commissioners created the Smart Growth Department seven years ago. As part of the Smart Growth Initiative and its New Urbanism review, a concept of ‘mixed use’ was developed, which provides for housing and workplaces within relatively short walking distances from one another. This is not a mixed use project, and this is not Smart Growth. When Wal-Mart comes back, I urge you to turn them down.”