On August 21, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart’s cover was blown in 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. The county has 273 square miles of Virginia countryside, with James River on its north, and the Appomattox on its south. Named after Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan has a long history, which local officials like to say “is secure because of the interest of its citizens in restoration and preservation.” But the county is also 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.” Philip Morris until recently was the region’s largest employer, but the Capital One Financial Corp is now the number one employer in the area. Many of the banking jobs have exited, but the county says it is working to attract high-tech manufacturing, and good-paying jobs. Into this transformation steps an incongruous player: Wal-Mart. 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 will have 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. When rumors of a Wal-Mart began to circulate widely, the County Planner told Powhatan Today that he hadn’t “seen anything with Wal-Mart’s name on it.” The size of the building, however, was a dead giveaway. But in late August, county officials were more forthcoming about the rumored project. The County’s Administrator said that on August 18, 2009, a meeting between Wal-Mart and county officials had taken place. No one from the media was at the meeting. The Administrator said she told Wal-Mart to become visible, but Wal-Mart’s lawyer said the giant retailer preferred to hold off until “everything is a done deal.” Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the newspaper, “there are still some things that need to fall into place and we don’t need to get people stirred up for something that might not happen.” Then he added, “We think it is going to happen.” Despite assurances from two supervisors that there would be a “full public process,” the fact that a Wal-Mart project has been proceeding below radar for almost a year has many local residents upset. 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) points out that a suburban big box footprint is incompatible with the county’s comprehensive land use plan. The group says Wal-Mart is 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 have voted to pay for a third-party review of Walmart’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.” The resolution passed by the supervisors only covers part of a three-phase traffic study of the area. The burden of studying the rest of Route 60 is apparently being foisted on property owners. According to the newspaper, homeowners will be asked to do the work of reviewing traffic conditions throughout the eastern Route 60 corridor. In December, Wal-Mart was given a one month deferral on its rezoning request, which now will be heard in March. Wal-Mart has told county officials that it is still refining its application. But Powhatan Today says there may be another reason for the delay. Another application has been submitted for a 163,000 square foot “free standing discount superstore,” at another location on Route 60, on property that is zoned C Commercial. A big box store would not have to rezone that property, and although no tenant is listed on the plans submitted by the developer, some area officials have speculated that because of traffic problems, and because of the strong anti-Wal-Mart group in Powhatan, that the giant retailer is serving up a second location that might be an easier way to gain entrance into Powhatan County.
Powhatan Grow Smart says that regardless of what happens to the Wal-Mart proposal, the group is 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. When the article appeared in the newspaper about Wal-Mart’s proposal, one local reader commented, “I moved to Powhatan for a reason. I don’t want to be around crappy box stores such as Wal-mart. I wanted to be in the country where I can go to a small store and get good old fashioned customer service by knowledgeable people. If I wanted to live in a well developed shopping area I would have moved to Richmond or Midlothian. While you may love having the convenience of a ‘variety’ store here, I dread having to deal with the traffic when there is one less than 20 miles. Also if you know anything about business, you can expect to see many of the small locally owned businesses here close because of Wal-Mart. Its what they do and I’ve seen it happen many times over with the various places I’ve lived… I don’t shop at Wal-Mart because I dislike the way they do business and I believe the quality of the merchandise is subpar… I’d rather pay the extra in gas than give that money to a chain I have no respect for. In time Powhatan will no longer have that down home country feel. It will just be another town with a Wal-Mart.” 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 communities. A full traffic study should be done, and the county taxpayers do not have to pay for it. It is customary for local officials to ask Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of such studies as a normal part of their permitting burden of proof. Wal-Mart’s own traffic studies always show improved traffic over existing conditions — which is why an independent study is needed. But make Wal-Mart foot the bill, because the study is largely a factor of their inappropriately located project.”