Flannel gray, forest green, formal garden, Shaker red, wild rose. No, these aren’t the newest colors in the Martha Stewart line of limited-edition oven mitts. Instead, they were the subtle shades and hues listed on architectural drawings of the brick-and-stone facade of the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the former Gerber site in south Asheville.
The color scheme, a departure from Wal-Mart’s usual purple-and-gray exterior, was a concession by the company to make the proposed 210,000-square-foot retail-and-grocery store more aesthetically pleasing. Local attorney Craig Justus, representing Wal-Mart, said the company is “willing to abide by all reasonable conditions imposed on us” in its dealings with the city. But for most of the estimated 250 people who packed the gymnasium of the Stephens-Lee Center for a marathon, seven-and-a-half-hour public hearing on Nov. 14, there wasn’t a color in the spectrum that could render the proposal palatable. Sharon Martin, speaking on behalf of the Asheville Direct Action Network, put it bluntly: “I’m here tonight because I do not like Wal-Mart.”
Using a basketball backboard as a backdrop, city workers had converted the gymnasium into an arena suitable for public discourse. Council members sat behind folding tables flanking the foul line; a lectern for speakers stood somewhere near the NBA three-point line; and the audience sat in rows of plastic chairs that covered the gym floor as far as the opposite basket. Latecomers, of course, had to sit in the bleachers.
The rules of the game
Council had assembled to consider granting a conditional-use permit that would allow Wal-Mart to finalize its purchase of the former Gerber plant site (at the intersection of Gerber Road and Hendersonville Road) and build a new Supercenter to replace the Wal-Mart a few blocks away on Hendersonville Road.
Council first had to review the proposal (which staff from the city Planning and Development Department had approved, subject to several conditions) in light of seven standards. These standards, as spelled out in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, are intended to ensure that a proposed project is appropriate to its particular location and to safeguard public health, safety and welfare. The standards are:
1. The proposed use or development of the land will not materially endanger the public health or safety.
2. The proposed use is reasonably necessary for the public health or general welfare.
3. The proposed use or development of the land will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property.
4. The proposed use or development of the land will be in harmony with the scale, bulk, coverage, density and character of the area in which it is located.
5. The proposed use or development of the land will generally conform to the comprehensive plan and other official plans adopted by the city.
6. The proposed use is appropriately located with respect to transportation facilities, water supply, fire and police protection, waste disposal, and similar facilities.
7. The proposed use will not cause undue traffic congestion or create a traffic hazard.
With these seven points in mind, Council heard heated testimony from 41 people, including lawyers for both sides, engineers, city staff and concerned citizens.
One point that everyone agreed on is that traffic in this particular area of south Asheville is already heavy and will only increase in the future. But how this problem could be mitigated and what role the new Wal-Mart would play was a point of contention. As required by the UDO, Wal-Mart submitted a traffic-impact analysis conducted by its traffic consultant, Rayme Kemp and Associates of Raleigh. The consultant had also been directed by city staff to analyze three intersections near the site: Hendersonville Road at Mills Gap Road; Sweeten Creek Road at Mills Gap Road; and Hendersonville Road at Long Shoals Road. City Traffic Engineer Michael Moule said in his testimony that, “In terms of traffic intersections, [Mills Gap Road at Sweeten Creek] is one of the worst that I’ve seen in the city of Asheville.”
The traffic-impact analysis recommended that Gerber Road be improved, and Wal-Mart agreed to make these improvements. (The TIA found that all three intersections now operate at level E or F on a scale of A-F, meaning the average delay per vehicle is more than 75 seconds. D is the minimum acceptable level of service.)
For audience members, many of whom lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, this was like preaching to the choir. Throughout the evening, residents of the Crowfields retirement community, the Givens Estates retirement community, and homeowners’ associations such as Upper Ballantree and South Side Village, recounted tales of traffic frustration.
The TIA also concluded that, with the addition of the Wal-Mart, all these intersections would operate at level F by 2002, but with even greater traffic delays. The Wal-Mart would, itself, have an estimated 4,000 trips in and out of its parking lot daily. This would increase traffic at various locations on Hendersonville Road by 6 to 8 percent — roughly one-third of the 12 to 19 percent traffic increase projected for the area by 2002.
Based on these findings, city staff had attached several conditions to their approval of the proposal. The most significant involved payments by Wal-Mart to help improve traffic conditions. The company agreed to pay $150,000 toward a traffic-signal upgrade that would synchronize lights on Hendersonville Road, and to contribute $150,000 toward a future widening of Mills Gap Road.
Justus, the Wal-Mart attorney, said the company would, as he put it, pay its “fair share.” But he was quick to point out that traffic in that area was bad long before Wal-Mart made its proposal. As part of his testimony, he produced a 1989 traffic study that the city had conducted. The study, said Justus, confirms that the Hendersonville Road intersections near the site were problem areas as far back as 10 years ago.
City staffers often work closely with the developers of such large projects, guiding them through the requirements of the various city ordinances and making requests that reflect the city’s vision for the future (as outlined in Asheville’s Smart Growth Plan). But two opponents of the Wal-Mart proposal said that they believe the relationship between Wal-Mart and city staff has been a little too cozy. George Clark, representing the Upper Ballantree Homeowners Association, said this was “the most blatant example of a planning group pandering to a developer I have ever seen.” And Darcel Eddins, speaking on behalf of the WNC Green Party, was even more specific. She charged that Moule, the city’s traffic engineer, had based his analysis of local traffic flows solely on the study done by Rayme Kemp and Associates — the firm hired by Wal-Mart.
Council member Ed Hay asked Moule if this were true. Moule responded, “Yes, but it [the study] was done under city guidelines.”
Mayor Leni Sitnick expressed doubts about the prospects for widening Mills Gap Road, which isn’t even included in the DOT’s Transportation Improvement Program, a priority list for future highway projects. “As a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee, [I am] aware that projects on the TIP can take years,” she said.
Sitnick also questioned Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford about the practicality of a highly touted bicycle rack proposed for the Supercenter. Shuford said it would promote alternative transportation, in keeping with the city’s Smart Growth Plan. Sitnick commented: “It’s great that we’re talking about bike racks, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would ride their bikes on these roads. It’s great that we’ll have a bike rack within 50 feel of the Wal-Mart, but what about getting the bikes there?”
By the end of the hearing, only one member of the public had spoken in favor of the Wal-Mart. Project opponents, meanwhile, recited a litany of reasons Council should reject the proposal. Some speakers limited their testimony to addressing the seven UDO standards; others lectured Council on the social and economic ramifications of “large-box retailers.” Accusations of exploitive labor practices and social irresponsibility were directed at the corporate giant on several occasions. Local scientist Ned Gutman challenged the hydrology studies conducted by the engineers Wal-Mart had hired. Gutman argued that the storm-water retention pond proposed for the development would be insufficient. Justus countered by questioning Gutman’s credentials.
Late in the evening (and faced with a glut of information), Council at one point indicated that it might postpone its final vote, in response to a request by the applicant for a 30-day continuance. The request, said Justus, would give the company more time to address new concerns. After some debate among themselves, however, Council members decided not to grant a continuance. The handful of people who had stayed past midnight seemed relieved to hear that closure was near.
After hearing closing statements, Council members, one by one, carefully stated the justification for their positions before the decisive 6-1 vote was taken.
Chuck Cloninger made a motion to deny the conditional-use permit, citing concerns over traffic (standard 7). Cloninger also felt that the proposal does not conform to the city’s comprehensive plan (standard 5). Additionally, he stated that the project is not “reasonably necessary” (standard 2). Cloninger added that the city has few large tracts of land suitable for industrial purposes and that these should be reserved for industries such as technology firms, which would provide better-paying jobs.
Brian Peterson seconded the motion, citing concerns about traffic congestion (standard 2) and storm-water run-off.
Terry Bellamy voted to deny the permit, citing the city’s failure to take a holistic look at the traffic impacts, as well as problems with standards 1 and 7.
Charles Worley cast the lone vote against Cloninger’s motion. Worley, who is an attorney, said that Council members can’t think about Wal-Mart’s corporate policies, due to legal constraints. He added that he didn’t feel the Wal-Mart would cause undue traffic congestion. The current traffic problems, said Worley, are due to the increased population in that area of south Asheville, which has attracted more retail and commercial development. This, he said, is just the marketplace at work, adding, “We are all to blame.”
Barbara Field voted to deny the permit, declaring, “The whole zoning process is bankrupt.” Field was clearly upset by the tone of the hearing, taking offense at what she called “attacks on City Council.” And in an unusual move, Field publicly chastised one speaker, Lisa Shias. Speaking on behalf of Community Supported Development, Shias had testified about “large-box retailers” who employ women at low wages and for limited hours, thus exacerbating a cycle of poverty. After the hearing, a visibly shaken Shias expressed shock over Field’s comments, saying, “I don’t understand this: We’re friends, and we drum together in a drum circle.”
When asked about her comment, Field responded: “I’m very upset by what Lisa said. I own a retail business that employs women, some of whom are part-time and are paid wages that aren’t very high. But why does she have to make us out to look like devils? She knows I own a retail business. That was a personal attack on me.”
Ed Hay voted to deny the permit, citing concerns over traffic (standard 7).
And Mayor Sitnick also voted to deny, citing concerns about public safety — specifically, potential delays to emergency vehicles caused by the heavy traffic. “We should do everything we can do to protect people from dangerous conditions,” proclaimed the mayor. She also stressed the importance of taking a holistic look at the interconnectedness of all the factors in such a large project. To look at individual problem areas in isolation, she said, is a disservice to the people she was elected to protect. The mayor also questioned city staff about how they could approve a project but say that X, Y and Z [the traffic improvements] must happen first when they know that X, Y and Z may not happen. “One other overriding thing is that with a 21-percent growth in traffic projected for this area, this one project was going to be responsible for fully one-third of it. Wow!”