Wal-Mart was exposed to too much sun this week in Delray Beach, Florida, where the company’s plans for a ‘small’ superstore just melted away. According to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, the giant retailer folded up its small store plans and disappeared into the night.
The writing was on the Wal on this one. Sprawl-Busters reported on August 20th that the Planning and Zoning Board in Delray Beach had sunk the retailer’s proposal to rezone land for a 78,000 s.f. superstore. The P &Z Board didn’t spare the retailer even one vote when the project came before them.
The proposed Wal-Mart in Delray Beach had residents hot and bothered. No wonder. There are 20 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Delray Beach — including a superstore 5 miles away in Boynton Beach. If residents don’t like the Boynton Beach superstore, there are 7 other Wal-Mart superstores within 20 miles. In addition, there is an existing Wal-Mart discount store right in Delray Beach on South Military Trail. Delray Beach has more Wal-Mart’s than pelicans.
In late April a confrontation broke out between Wal-Mart and neighbors in the Tropic Isle area of Delray. The very idea of a superstore juxtaposed with a tropic isle seemed incompatible. Delray is known as the ‘village by the sea.’ Wal-Mart’s proposal was to convert an old Buick dealership into a 24 hour superstore. The plan would have changed Delray’s image into the “Wal-Mart by the sea.”
“It has everybody here in a state of fear,” Kelli Freeman, president of the Tropic Bay Condominium Association, told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The Association is a community of retirees mostly, whose property abuts the Wal-Mart site. “We’re merely 100 feet off the property line.”
Picture a neighborhood of small homes with tropical plants and canals near the Intracoastal Waterway. Some are townhomes, and condos — a small community unto itself. The Tropic Isle residents didn’t want a huge superstore for a neighbor — and they were prepared to fight for their neighborhood.
Residents expressed their concerns that the superstore would bring more traffic and more crime to their community, as well as destroy the smaller-scale businesses that are more indigenous to the area. “It happens everywhere Wal-Mart goes,” said Freeman.
Wal-Mart countered that the land they wanted was now an empty parking lot, so a superstore would make the neighborhood better. “It’s going to help the community,” a Wal-Mart public relations staffer said. “It’s on Federal Highway, and it’s an area that already has traffic.” In other words — it’s already been degraded, so what’s a little more of the same going to matter?
The neighbors were not convinced. Wal-Mart applied for a rezoning from automotive to general commercial. This zoning change gave residents a chance to mount a legal appeal against the project that could drag on for years. But the project collapsed sooner than many residents ever would imagine.
On August 16th, the residents got their chance to warm up the Planning and Zoning Board meeting. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Kelli Freeman charged that Wal-Mart was hoping to push their rezoning request through before the snowbirds return to their Delray homes. Many residents leave during the summer months to their homes in the north. The homeowners and condo owners in the Tropic Bay, Pelican Harbor, Tropic Harbor and Tropic Isle neighborhoods would return to a much-changed neighborhood.
If General Commercial rezoning was granted, opponents said the zone permits a very broad range of uses, including many that are incompatible with surrounding residential homes. In contrast, the automotive zoning guidelines are much more limited to auto dealerships.
The President of the Tropic Bay’s Association, Ray Kempf, told the Sun-Sentinel that this huge project would create increased incidents of crime, increased traffic congestion, increased noise pollution, and decreased residential real estate values.
“One of the Tropic Bay buildings is 128 feet away from the property lines of this proposed Wal-Mart building,” Kempf noted. “Then there’s the retention pond issue. The stakes are already in the ground right there, and we believe during a major storm or rainfall that area will flood into our neighborhoods.”
Opponents formed a group called ‘Delray First,’ and retained a land use attorney, Michael Weiner. Kempf said local officials should realize that the proposed Wal-Mart was not a source of jobs or revenues for the city, because most of its sales would be transferred from existing merchants, including area grocery stores. Wal-Mart is a form of economic dislocation, not economic development.
But the main impact will be on local neighbors, because the scale of this project — even though it is smaller than most supercenters — was simply incompatible with residential living. A Wal-Mart set aside in a commercial park is bad enough — but with residential property abutting it, the project becomes a win/lose situation, with the homeowners losing.
The P&Z meeting turned into a tropical hurricane for Wal-Mart. The newspapers called it a ‘serious setback,’ but the retailer couldn’t even must one vote in its 6-0 scrubbing before the Board. The hearing room was packed, loaded with neighbors who didn’t want the store, and stayed for the entire 4 hour event.
Although residents could not be sure at the time, the decisive vote against Wal-Mart at the Planning and Zoning level forced the company to rethink its game plan. This week, Wal-Mart’s lawyer sent a letter to the city cutting the anchor on its plans.
“Wal-Mart has authorized me to respectfully withdraw the zoning and site plan applications at this time,” wrote Wal-Mart’s local lawyer. “Wal-Mart appreciates the City’s efforts in processing the applications but has decided to reassess its position within the market.”
Just in time, because Wal-Mart was slated to appear before the City Council the following day, September 21st. Kelli Freeman, head of the Tropic Isle Homeowners Association, told the newspaper, “This is what we wanted and what I have spent the last five months of my life doing. We had worked so hard and tomorrow night was going to be culmination of it all.”
“It has required a tremendous amount of work,” said Ray Kempf, another leader of the group. “It was an organizational effort on a grass-roots-type level. We don’t want big boxes popping up all over the city. Whether it’s Wal-Mart or Bloomingdale’s.”
It looked like the project was heading towards a major confrontation in City Hall, because the City Commission had actually approved the plan at an earlier meeting — but just so they could take it up in more detail at a second hearing. One Commissioner told the Sun-Sentinel, “[Now] there will not be a vote required.” Instead, neighbors are getting an email from the City Manager telling them that the Wal-Mart superstore is dead.
Wal-Mart never admits that community opposition plays a role in their withdrawal.
In Delray, Wal-Mart told the media, “It got to the point where we have to reassess not only the Delray Beach project but also step back and see how that fits into our overall plans for the future.” When asked why his company threw in the beach towel, the Wal-Mart spokesman said, “The short answer is there are many factors and they all played into it.”
But Ray Kempf knows why Wal-Mart walked away. “The real reason of course is the opposition and how they underestimated it. We were ready for the Commission Meeting, with people and speakers and legitimate points. They bailed because they knew they were facing a 5-0 defeat. Our attorney Michael Weiner did a great job. It was key in being taken seriously.” And Kelli Freeman agrees: “It’s a nice showing of what residents can really do if they get behind an issue. You can make a difference and implement change.”
But many residents were nervous about how the hearings would go. The city’s planning staff had recommended the zoning change, but the Planning & Zoning Board refused to rubber stamp the staff opinion.
This land has apparently been rezoned several times in the past. Neighbors near this parcel have had to put up with the uncertainty of what would end up being their neighbor. Other car dealers in the area have indicated interested in acquiring the Ralph Buick site.
The absurdity of this proposal is that Wal-Mart already has superstore #2789 on Old Boynton Beach Road. That store is less than 3 miles from another Delray Beach store on Military Trail.
Freeman told the Sun-Sentinel she was concerned about the negative impact another superstore would have on the character of her community. “A Wal-Mart on every corner is not going to be the answer,” she complained.
Readers are urged to email Mayor “Woodie” McDuffie at [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear Mayor McDuffie, It’s great news that Wal-Mart has abandoned the Ralph Buick site. This project was a big change in intensity of use for this sensitive area. A Wal-Mart superstore would have represented a huge change in use from a car dealership, in terms of traffic, noise, light, 24 hour operation, etc. It’s like a night and day change for the Tropic Isle community.
To make matters worse — your community is over-saturated with big box stores. There are 20 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles of Delray — including the Boynton Beach superstore and the Military Trail store just minutes away.
Wal-Mart is not a form of economic development, because most of its sales would come from smaller merchants — especially grocery stores and Wal-Mart’s other stores. Municipal costs would go up, the value of residential properties nearby would go down, and neighbors would feel betrayed by city government. Every neighbor near this property would start lining up for a property tax abatement. In the end, you would see no added value from this store in terms of jobs or tax revenues.
There are many reasons to reject a rezoning. It is not an ‘as-of-right’ decision. Your Planning and Zoning Board was right: this rezoning makes little sense, and is wildly unpopular in the community.
Now its time for you to take the lead in protecting the neighbors, by placing a firm cap on the size of buildings, putting a demolition bond in place to prevent empty stores, and requiring a much more complete special permit review for any stores over 35,000 square feet. It’s time for Delray Beach to use smart growth principles to protect your piece of Paradise.”