The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, June 17, 2005

Wal-Mart scraps plan; A1

Replacement of bridge factored into decision

By William C. Flook
(Daily Staff Writer)

FRONT ROYAL — After a battle that spanned several years, Wal-Mart has given up on its plans to build a store on the banks of the Shenandoah River at Front Royal’s northern entrance.

The retail giant confirmed the decision Thursday, ending a bitter and emotionally charged controversy. Many call the decision not to build a Supercenter on the Va. 55 site a mutually beneficial outcome for both the town and the corporation.

Wal-Mart still plans to open a store in the area, though the timeline and location are not firm at this point, according to Rhoda Washington, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

“We’re just so happy we can give the community exactly what they’re looking for,” she said. “We think this is a win-win situation.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation said in January that a project to replace the U.S. 340-522 bridge over the North Fork of the river would not be completed until Sept. 1, 2009. Wal-Mart could not make road improvements until the bridge’s completion, which was previously set for 2007 or 2008.

Washington said the delay was a factor in Wal-Mart’s decision.

“It’s about providing our services in a timely manner, as expeditiously as possible,” she said.

Wal-Mart representatives met with a number of local officials Wednesday to announce the plans not to build at the site. They included Front Royal Mayor James M. Eastham, Del. Clifford L. “Clay” Athey Jr., R-Front Royal, and state Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, who is also a Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

“I am pleased that Wal-Mart has reconsidered its position and decided to locate its Supercenter to another site,” Eastham wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “I was especially pleased when the Wal-Mart representatives I met with yesterday assured me that they are committed to coming to Front Royal and serving the shopping needs of the community.”

The saga began in April 2002, when Wal-Mart Community Affairs Manager Keith Morris declared the corporation was interested in a 45-acre tract across from A.S. Rhodes Elementary School. Two months later, more than 100 concerned residents met with company officials at Riverton United Methodist Church.

On Aug. 19 of that year, Wal-Mart submitted a request to rezone 121 acres from residential to commercial for a 184,000-square-foot Supercenter, about 900 feet west of the Va. 55 intersection with U.S. 340-522.

Opposition rose over the proposed site, which is marked by two bridges, each spanning a fork of the Shenandoah River.
Save Our Gateway, a grass-roots group wanting to preserve the site, announced its founding that October.

On Thursday, Craig Laird, president of the group, wrote by e-mail that the organization is “delighted with the news that Wal-Mart will be coming to Warren County, and hopefully be settling in the 522 commercial corridor.”
Save Our Gateway and others suggested locating in the corridor, north of Interstate 66, which is served by town water and sewer.

“Our community looks forward to new and varied shopping north of Front Royal,” he wrote. “And this truly provides a win-win scenario for the entire community and Wal-Mart.”

He then thanked Eastham and Potts.

On June 10, 2003, despite a negative recommendation from the Front Royal Planning Commission, the Town Council voted 3-0 to approve the first reading of the rezoning request. Vice Mayor Daniel J. Pond III and Councilman Eugene R. Tewalt recused themselves because of conflicts of interest. Councilman Fred P. Foster recused himself in an attempt to prevent a quorum.

Foster managed to temporarily forestall a final vote by simply not attending meetings, or by leaving before the vote could take place. But Tewalt decided not to leave a meeting on July 28, 2003, and abstained from voting. As a result, Councilmen E.D. “Dusty” McIntosh Jr., Hollis L. Tharpe and Joseph T. McDaniel were able to pass the rezoning.

On Thursday, Foster lauded Wal-Mart’s decision not to build at the proposed site.

“It’s been a long three and a half years, and I want to take my hat off to Wal-Mart for stepping to the plate,” Foster said. “I wish them well and much success in their business.”

On Aug. 21, 2003, Save Our Gateway filed suit against the town of Front Royal and Wal-Mart, challenging the vote on four counts, including that the council had an improper quorum when it made the decision.

A judge ruled in December of that year against two counts in Save Our Gateway’s suit, finding that the council did have a proper quorum. The group later filed a non-suit, withdrawing two of the other counts, and appealed the remainder to the state Supreme Court. That court has not decided whether to hear the matter.

In May 2004, Tewalt, Tharpe, and McIntosh were voted out of office, as was Mayor Robert L. Tennett Jr.

The new council members and mayor reversed the town’s stance on the Wal-Mart rezoning, and eventually joined with Save Our Gateway in the group’s suit.

Other efforts were also pursued to oppose the construction of the Supercenter at the site. Potts said he helped mobilize a number of groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the
Friends of the Shenandoah River, to weigh in on the matter.

“I always wanted to do this, not in an adversarial fashion, but to convince the Wal-Mart people, who very graciously agreed, that we could create a win-win for them,” he said Thursday.

Potts praised the work of Save Our Gateway, Eastham, and Councilman Stan W. Brooks Jr.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R- Harrisonburg, whose district includes Warren County, issued a press release saying that he is “delighted” by Wal-Mart’s decision.

“I appreciate this opportunity to work side by side with Del. Clay Athey, and I appreciate all of his hard work to bring the many parties involved together on this issue,” he wrote in the release.

Laird said the status of the group’s suit will be examined in the next few days.