Wal-Mart never was very good at reading a zoning map. It’s not that they can’t figure it out — it’s that they don’t care how land is zoned, or what the neighbors might think. If the land is not zoned correctly, Wal-Mart will push to get it changed. That’s the situation in Greenville, North Carolina. The city of Greenville has a population of just over 76,000 people — certainly enough to satisfy one Wal-Mart superstore. The city already has a supercenter on Greenville Boulevard. Greenville is located on 35 square miles in the north central coastal plain region of Eastern North Carolina, approximately 85 miles east of Raleigh, and roughly 87 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. The city says it is committed to “insuring a community of distinction for the future.” Apparently, being saturated with Wal-Marts is considered a “distinction” in Greenville. Last night, the Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission agreed to a land-use change that could pave the way for another Wal-Mart Supercenter, this one at 10th Street and Port Terminal Road. According to the Daily Reflector newspaper, the Planning Commission voted 6-2 to recommend that the City Council alter its existing land use plan to rezone a 52 acre parcel for commercial use. In voting for this zone change, the Planning Commission had to ignore and overturn the recommendation of the city’s own planning staff. “It’s not that there shouldn’t be any development,” said Chantae Gooby, the city’s planner. “It’s just a matter of scale.” But there are signs of life in Greenville. A resident’s group has formed to fight the superstore. “This is just one little bump,” said Marion Blackburn, one of the leaders of the group of about 175 people from the River Hills neighborhood, who attended last night’s meeting. A developer from Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, WRS, Inc, has called their retail extravaganza “Port Terminal Commons.” Wal-Mart is the main anchor for the complex, which is located across the road from a Lowe’s big box store. The only problem is: the land Wal-Mart wants is not designated for retail use. Neighbors have expected the land to be used for office/institutional/multi-family, medium density residential use, and for conservation/open space. The city’s planning staff noted that the existing zoning designation allows for a buffer between intense commercial uses and the residential uses. There are several other more appropriate sites for a big box development, according to city staff. The developer, WRS Inc., claims its project will result in 750 jobs for Greenville, and that noise and visual buffers would be built between the development and River Hills to lessen the impacts on residential properties. WRS claims that almost half of their land will be put into a conservation easement to prevent future development. But the fact remains, the land Wal-Mart wants is not properly zoned, and the city is under no obligation to change it for anyone — even a big corporation.
The developer says this second superstore in Greenville is needed to accoomodate the “30,000 people out there we believe are being underserved” in eastern Pitt county, to the east of Greenville. The developer admitted that many people living in eastern Pitts county would rather drive to Washington, North Carolina to shop, avoiding the traffic congestion in Greenville. There already is a Wal-Mart supercenter in Washington 18 miles to the east of the existing supercenter in Greenville. The citizens group say they are not opposed to more retail development, but it should be on land that is properly zoned. “These jobs and that revenue will come if we situate that development in a proper location,” Blackburn told The Reflector. River Hills neighbors submitted a petition signed by 170 residents against the Wal-Mart. Residents are concerned that a road will be built linking the neighborhood to the shopping center, resulting in a lot of drive through traffic in their neighborhood, which will be a public safety issue, and lower property values. The president of the River Hills Neighborhood Association told the Planning Commmission, “This area was never intended for this level of commercial activity. There are other parcels the city’s planning department has recommended to WRS.” The final decision is in the hands of the Greenville City Council, which will hold a public hearing on the change to the land use plan. If the Council goes along with the Planning Commission, then the developer has to file for the zone change, and the Council will have to vote to approve the zone change. The specific site plans then have to be approved. The City Council meets next on November 6th, and River Hills neighbors promise to be there. “We are going to continue as a neighborhood, not just as a neighborhood, but a city, to stick together so we can make our own decisions about growth so we can protect our neighborhoods,” she said. Readers are urged to email Greenville’s Mayor Pat Dunn at: [email protected], with the following message: “Dear Mayor Dunn, I hope you will support the homeowners in the River Hills neighborhood who correctly point out that the Port Terminal Road area is not properly zoned for a dense commercial development like the one planned by WRS. The people living in River Hills bought their homes relying on the fact that this land was not zoned for major retail. Big box stores and dense residential uses are not a compatible mix. There is no way you can buffer a Wal-Mart superstore from the neighbors. It will change the character of River Hills for decades to come. Given the fact that there are other locations that are properly zoned, please urge the City Council not to change your land use plan just for this developer. Make Wal-Mart fit into Greenville’s plan — not the reverse. You already have a Wal-Mart supercenter in Greenville, and adding another one will bring little or no added value economically to Greenville, because most of its sales will come from the existing supercenter and local merchants. Protect your neighborhoods, protect your local economy, by voting no special land deals for Wal-Mart. Remember: a zone change is a discretionary decision. The Council is not required to give any developer a zone change, and must weigh the welfare and safety of surrounding land uses in the process.”