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Thursday 06 May 2004

Wal-Mart in Front Royal, and Town Elections

So on Tuesday there was an election here in Front Royal — or, I should say, there in Front Royal, since I don’t actually live in the town.

The mayor and three town council members were voted out of office, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that Wal-Mart was voted out of office, too.

Last summer, the big kerfuffle here was about whether a zoning variance — I think it was a zoning variance, I’m not entirely certain — should be approved to allow Wal-Mart to build a new store on the north end of town.

Now, rather unusually, the residents of Front Royal were (and are) generally in favor of having Wal-Mart move into town. I’m not sure whether this will be good for the town in the long run (eventually a town with the distinction of not having a Wal-Mart will in and of itself be a tourist attraction), but in the short term, at least, it would be very nice to be able to buy things without dealing with K-Mart or driving twenty miles.

I greatly admire Wal-Mart as a business and as a company, but their stores are just awful. On balance, we’d be much better off with the thing, though.

Wal-Mart wants to build their store on an incredibly ill-suited site, though, and last summer the town council approved this. Wal-Mart prefers this terrible site to the obviously superior one about a mile away because, they say, the other site is too rocky, and the site-preparation work would cost too much. This might be plausible but for the fact that their preferred site has about a 30-degree slope, presents serious ingress and egress problems for vehicles, is not visible from the Interstate highway, and is in a floodplain.

The ‘too-rocky’ site is relatively flat, next to a highway interchange, on a four-lane divided road, etc., etc. Wal-Mart is a very strange negotiator when it comes to store-siting issues. They are very persistent in attempting to build stores in places where there’s a lot of opposition, because even in the most anti-Wal-Mart places there are enough potential customers for them to make money.

When Wal-Mart is welcomed, at least, they threaten to pull out at the drop of a hat as soon as anything doesn’t go their way. This is what they’ve been doing in Front Royal: they say that if they can’t build where they want, they’ll take their Supercenter and go home, even though there’s clearly a market for them here.

In this view, the actual suitable Wal-Mart sites are outlined in red. The site they want to build on is outlined in yellow:

(See this page for better illustrations of the sites.)

The south-easternmost red site is now going to be occupied by a strip mall anchored by Lowe’s. In today’s Warren Sentinel, there was a story about the county turning down a request from Lowe’s for a sales-tax kickback:

“It’s not our job to subsidize a retail business to possible advantage over other retailers”, [Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman] Tony Carter later commented.

In Virginia, counties and towns are separate entities; Front Royal is completely surrounded by Warren County, and Warren County has its courthouse, offices, jail, etc. in Front Royal, but Front Royal is not part of Warren County.

The unsuitable-but-preferred-by-Wal-Mart site is in Front Royal; the other sites are in Warren County.

It occurs to me that the Front Royal officials may have been of a mind that it is their job to subsidize private businesses. I haven’t seen any hint of this anywhere, so it’s just speculation; but it certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a town to offer tax kickbacks — let’s be honest, that’s what they are — to a big company that chose to do business in its jurisdiction, and this may well have influenced Wal-Mart’s preference for the floodplain over the site next to the highway.

It is interesting that Wal-Mart, having got their zoning variance close to a year ago now, has not done any site-preparation work. Usually they break ground the day after any vote in their favor, so they can show specific harm if the town or county later changes its mind. Perhaps they were waiting for this election to see whether or not they’d be able to get tax concessions from the town.

Anyway, it will be even more interesting to see what happens now that the pro-Wal-Mart-in-the-floodplain officials are not longer in office.

Two Warren Sentinel stories about the election are reproduced ‘below the fold’, so to speak:

Incumbents swept out of office

Eastham defeats Tennett: Brooks, Darr, Grady take council seats

The Warren Sentinel

Was it a public referendum on the Riverton Wal-Mart rezoning?

Yes, no or maybe depending on who you talked to in the wake of Tuesday’s town election (see related story).

However, one thing is not in dispute - three incumbent councilmen and a mayor identified either as proponents or facilitators of that rezoning were voted out of office on Tuesday.

The reactions varied from ecstatic celebrations of victory by Save Our Gateway supporters of Stan Brooks, to quiet, philosophical acceptance of defeat by outgoing Mayor Robert L. Tennett Jr.

One common theme surfaced in the comments of both winners and losers Tuesday night - gratitude for a campaign conducted without much of the venom displayed during portions of last year’s debate over the Wal-Mart Riverton rezoning request.

“I want to thank all of my volunteers and supporters, and I especially want to thank Mayor Tennett for his many years of service to Front Royal. We all owe him a debt of gratitude,” said victorious mayoral candidate Jim Eastham.

“The people of Front Royal have spoken and I embrace their decision though it’s not the one I was hoping for,” Tennett said shortly after the final tally was announced around 9 p.m. “Throughout my many years of service as mayor and as a town councilman it has been my only wish that the voice of the people be heard and acted upon.”

Tennett added his “heartiest congratulations” to Eastham, calling him a gentleman and a friend and adding, “I will do my part to assure that there is a smooth transition of power between my administration and his.”

All the council candidates concurred that the campaign had been conducted with dignity and fairness.

However, perspectives on the result were somewhat divided.

“I believe the results are a clear message that the people are ready for a change and I am hopeful we’ll be able to meet their expectations. I believe they want managed growth,” said

Eileen Grady, adding, “I think other issues of concern are the budget, the growth of the town government and action on infrastructure improvements.”

“From the outset the three [winning council] candidates and I tried to make this more than a referendum on Wal-Mart,” Eastham concurred. “There are many other issues out there … such as town finances, planning and infrastructure that we all individually addressed as a part of our campaigns. Apparently the people responded to those issues, which will have an impact on Front Royal for years to come. And I am glad the voters were able to make this more than just a vote on Wal-Mart.”

“I guess they played a better game than we did,” said Hollis Tharpe, whose fourth-place finish was one place (and 114 votes) out of the money. “It’s obviously disappointing to me that the incumbents were not reelected but I’ve had four good years on the council. But I am saddened by the fact that [the winners] may want to get rid of some employees who work very hard for this town.” Tharpe declined to comment on whom he thought those employees might be.

Town Manager Rick Anzolut was the lone town official present Tuesday evening as results came in at County Registrar Carol Tobin’s office in the Warren County Government Center. As the final Fork District precinct results showed a sweep from office of a mayor and half a council he has worked with since the last millennium, Anzolut was asked for a comment.

“I don’t have anything to do with the election - I’m not running for anything, why would you want to quote me?” the town manager said with a good-natured smile.

Could election impact Wal-Mart rezoning?

The Warren Sentinel

There was little dispute that the Front Royal Town Council’s 2003 rezoning of the 121-acre Richards Estate to accommodate a socalled Wal-Mart “supercenter” weighed heavily on the public consciousness in yesterday’s town election.

But exactly how that weight was distributed over yesterday’s result and it’s implication on that rezoning’s future are much less clear.

Mayor-elect Jim Eastham and the three council challengers who displaced incumbents yesterday all expressed firm opposition to the Wal-Mart rezoning during the campaign.

Mayor Robert L. Tennett Jr. and incumbents E.D. “Dusty” McIntosh and Hollis Tharpe all supported the Wal-Mart rezoning while recused councilman Eugene Tewalt stood by his recusals and presence to facilitate a council vote on the matter.

Were those the deciding factors in the election?

“Absolutely, it played a strong part in the election,” second place council finisher Tim Darr said.

“Not with that close a vote - no!” top incumbent vote getter Hollis Tharpe said in disagreement. Tharpe’s 990 votes were 114 shy of thirdplace finish and reelection.

“I don’t think it was a one issue election - there were a lot of things involved in that one issue,” first-place council vote getter and former mayor Stan Brooks said of the Wal-Mart rezoning. “Such things as communicating with the public and being open minded, asking such things as how does this affect the Riverton community? So what I think the election was saying is that Front Royal believes in thinking about and planning its growth and not letting growth just happen to it.

“I think people accept that growth will come but they also want to be left with a community that is liveable,” Brooks concluded.

“As for Wal-Mart, we [the election winners] all see a need to have a Wal-Mart in the community if we are ever going to become a regional shopping center,” Mayor-elect Jim Eastham said. “But that site is not the best place for it. Their initial site north of Shenandoah Motors would be fine because it has the roads and infrastructure to support [such] a store now.

“I look forward to working with the new council in creating a new vision for the future, and charting a course to get us there,” Eastham concluded.

“The community has spoken and together we can move on,” Brooks added.

Was their election a mandate for a revisiting of the Richard’s Estate rezoning?

“Yes! But I think the bigger mandate is about future growth,” Eileen Grady said Tuesday. Reminded that legal challenges to the current council’s rezoning decision scheduled to be heard in a 26th District Circuit Court in September still made Wal-Mart a “future” proposition for this community, Grady paused and added that if it is a legal option for council to revisit the rezoning, “I’d vote no [on the rezoning]. I don’t have a problem with that.”

“I don’t know - it’s a tough question,” Tim Darr added.

Posted by tino at 17:57 6.05.04
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This was an interesting description and analysis of the “Wal-Mart situation” in Front Royal. The main reason why Wal-Mart hasn’t broken ground, however, is that they are awaiting the ruling on a suit filed by the grass-roots organization, Save Our Gateway, to invalidate the Town Council’s approval of Wal-Mart’s rezoning request last August. After a preliminary hearing in November last year, and March of this year, the judge has determined that Save Our Gateway has enough evidence/rationale to warrant a full-blown bench trial in September. Wal-Mart would be foolish to start construction now—-there’s the possibility (fairly good) that the judge will rule in favor of Save Our Gateway, and Wal-Mart would then have to stop construction and repair whatever damage they had done to the property. It’s likely the judge will return the issue to the newly elected council which would, undoubtedly, disapprove Wal-Mart’s rezoning request. “Tino” has a good point—-Wal-Mart seems to take a perverse satisfaction in building on pristine land.

Posted by: Phillip at May 18, 2004 06:11 PM

I’ve got three things to say to “Phillip”:

  • What’s with the quotes? My name is Tino:
  • Believe me, if I were going to pick a pseudonym, I’d pick something like “The Great Bonzini” or some such.

  • Why would Wal-Mart have to repair ‘damage’ to the land? Presumably Wal-Mart or some allied company owns it. Prior to the rezoning, that land wasn’t a nature preserve: it was zoned for residential use. At most they would have to ‘repair’ the land to prevent erosion.
  • If Wal-Mart had started building on the land immediately, with the zoning in place, they could probably have claimed damages from the town if it turned out that the council had illegally re-zoned it (which I admit is quite possible). If Wal-Mart had started construction and if they had then lost in court, and if their claimed damages were large enough, they might have been able to prompt the town to re-re-zone the land (legally this time), rather than pay the damages. Wal-Mart has done similar things in the past, which is what makes me wonder why they didn’t have bulldozers out there the night of the council meeting.

  • Wal-Mart doesn’t have a ‘perverse’ ‘satisfaction’ in building on ‘pristine’ land, and as long as you believe that they do you’re likely to misjudge the situation. Wal-Mart wants one thing: to make as much money as possible. That’s all.
  • The question then is, how is it that building on this land makes them the most money? It’s not flat, it doesn’t have good access for cars, it’s got no room for expansion (i.e. a little retail district will never crop up there unless someone dynamites a couple good-sized hills), and it’s prone to flooding. Even if they put the store on the very top of the slope — which will leave less room for a parking lot in front — their drains will tend to back up every Spring.

    It’s an insane site, and there’s got to be a reason why they want so badly to build there — but it’s not that they just want to build on ‘pristine’ land for its own sake.

    Posted by: Tino at May 18, 2004 09:18 PM

    Regarding your DL, did they really list your driver’s license number (soundex) under “CUSTOMER NO.”? I wonder who had a sense of humor over at V-DOT.

    Posted by: steel at May 24, 2004 02:01 PM

    VDOT maintains the roads; the DMV issues drivers licenses. And yes, the DMV does like to see us as ‘customers’ because this gives them license to treat us worse.

    In business, there are certain customers who you just don’t want to serve, because you don’t make any money from serving them. If these customers don’t come back, that’s actually great.

    If the DMV succeeds in driving a ‘customer’ away with poor service, though, then that ‘customer’ either needs to be a pedestrian from then on, or risk prison.

    I wrote about this here after reading that the VA transportation secretary say that “Virginia’s DMV offices must continue to trim costs because they cannot afford the level of services that residents demand. “

    People don’t demand anything from the DMV. The DMV, rather, demands things from them. If you’re going to drive a car in Virginia, you have to deal with the DMV to obtain a driver’s license and to get license plates for your car. The state uses the threat of violence — they’ll put you in jail, ultimately, if you don’t obey — to compel you to obtain these things.


    Posted by: Tino at May 24, 2004 02:35 PM

    I wish I had tapped back into this discussion earlier, so I could have replied to “Tino’s”…er, Tino’s responses to my statements made back in mid-May concerning the Wal-Mart issue in Front Royal.

    (1) Sorry, Tino, about the quotes around your name—no offense intended.

    (2) With regard to potential repair costs, there are several factors to consider. First, it’s problematic whether Wal-Mart will obtain its preferred site upon which to build its SuperCenter. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, a judge will rule in early September whether the previous town council’s approval of Wal-Mart’s rezoning request was valid. It would seem foolish of Wal-Mart to go to the expense of excavating and preparing the site, and then find out that the property will revert back to its residential zoning status. Also, it’s unclear who actually owns this property at this point in time. Although Wal-Mart obviously obtained the option to buy the property, I think the Richards’ Trust still owns the land—at least until the court case is resolved. Regardless of who owns this property, the repair costs are implicit if the land reverts back to a residential status, because any prospective residential developer is going to balk at paying full price if Wal-Mart has begun construction which, as I recall, entails digging some 30 to 40 feet below the frontage road, developing retention ponds, constructing a 20 foot berm parallel to the Shenandoah’s banks, laying out a parking lot and, of course, erecting the building structure itself. The preliminary hearings have pointed to some serious procedural mistakes on the part of both the Town Council and Wal-Mart, and I understand why Wal-Mart is hesitant to proceed with excavation/proffer-related activities.

    (3) Obviously, Wal-Mart is primarily motivated by profit. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that their choice of sites is based entirely on their desire to despoil beautiful property. However, based on my casual observation of Wal-Mart’s behavior in 3 different states in which I’ve seen them operate, it’s uncanny that if Wal-Mart has a choice of sites within a specific locale, they invariably choose the site that has the most esthetic appeal. Front Royal is a good case in point. As you pointed out earlier, the site north of the property in question would seem better situated for a box store (i.e., relatively flat, close proximity to interstate, etc.). Yet, Wal-Mart insists on building on the property adjacent to the Shenandoah River, the property with the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge mountains. Of course, it may be that Wal-Mart is getting a sweetheart deal on this land. You could also argue that a store on this property would “capture” everyone entering or exiting the north side of Front Royal. However, it’s still difficult for me to believe that the property further north is that much more expensive or would draw significantly less people than the site they’re pursuing.

    Finally, I think that the grass-roots organization (Save Our Gateway) deserves some recognition (perhaps grudgingly) for its effort to state off Wal-Mart from that site. In August 2002, Wal-Mart announced its intentions to build on that site; they’re not much closer to that objective now than they were back then. Through some rather adept political and legal maneuvering, Wal-Mart’s plans have been put on hold, and the town council members who approved Wal-Mart’s rezoning request have been ousted. This organization has apparently been able to sustain a substantive funding raising campaign to combat Wal-Mart in court. This whole episode would be a good case history for a 101 Political Science course.

    Posted by: Phillip at July 12, 2004 11:17 AM