“I’ll tell you what this is, and I’ll tell you what it’s not,” said Franklin Mayor Joe Collins, opening a public hearing on a special use permit for a proposed Wal-mart Supercenter just outside the town limits.
Collins had anticipated that the capacity crowd gathered in the town hall on Monday night had come to express their opinions about whether they wanted a new Wal-Mart. But he was keen to limit the discussion to a very narrow topic: the size of the building’s footprint and a request for larger signs.
“This is not the time or the place to have a general discussion about whether you do or do not want to have a Wal-mart,” Collins said.
Developers Bright-Meyers, LLC, appeared on behalf of Wal-Mart to secure a necessary special use permit to proceed with the new store.
According to Collins, the public hearing was a carefully proscribed step in a process that began on May 21, when the application was first submitted.
The project’s special use permit application was vetted in a neighborhood compatibility meeting on June 8 in which nearby property owners voiced their opinions, and it was stamped for approval by the town’s planning board on June 15 after a thorough fact-finding process.
At the end of Monday night’s hearing, which was full of opinions from opponents and supporters of the project, the town board voted 6 to 0 to approve the special use permit and open the way for the store. But the vote didn’t do anything to dispel the idea that Wal-Marts are still controversial. The hearing was boisterous and at times contentious, as supporters and critics of the project shouted back and forth.
The proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter would be located at the corner of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads just off of the N.C. 441 bypass. The 33-acre site is outside the town limits, but within its zoning district and adjacent to the site of a recently constructed middle school.
The town’s unified development ordinance, created in 2007, requires any building over 30,000 square feet to go through a special use permit process.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter will measure 120,000 square feet and include two additional outbuildings of 32,000 square feet and nearly 800 parking places. Wal-Mart also wanted larger signs than are allowed under the town’s ordinance — one on the side of the building and one at the development’s entrance.
Town Planner Mike Grubermann, who has overseen the application process, said the developer’s proposal met the standards of the town’s universal development ordinance in all respects except the two conditions outlined in the special use permit application. He said the roads that provide access to the site are overseen by N.C. Department of Transportation and would require their approval, but traffic counts provided by the developers met his department’s standards.
Franklin developer Marty Kimsey summed up the case for those in support of the special use permit, saying that in a down economy, the new store offered jobs and a boost for the private sector.
“The bottom line is that this site will not be used as a Wal-Mart unless the special use permit is given,” Kimsey said.
Opponents of the project questioned whether Wal-Mart would bring new jobs or hurt existing businesses. They pointed out the potential environmental impact of its placement on the banks of the Little Tennessee River and raised concerns about its effect on traffic patterns in close proximity to the new school.
“I don’t think you could choose a worse area to build something that big,” said Mike Kegan, a resident of Dowdle Mountain Road.
Collins, presiding over the hearing, policed the comments closely at first, but as the hearing wore on, the speakers increasingly used the microphone to talk about their general views on having a new Wal-Mart in town.
John Cantrell, a former high school teacher who was against the permit, was exasperated when Collins cut him off. Cantrell complained about the proximity of the giant commercial complex to the nearby middle school, but Collins deemed them unrelated to the permit application.
“Well, who is it, who is supposed to hear these concerns?” Cantrell asked.
“I don’t know. It’s not us. Not here,” Collins said.
After the hearing was closed, Collins explained the guidelines for public hearings on special use permits are governed by state statutes and that, at the advice of Henning, he attempted to keep the discussion focused on the issue of exceeding square footage requirements.
“It may be that there are [towns] that take a looser approach than this, but I think that’s risky,” Henning said, adding that the developers could appeal the vote of the board if they felt the hearing was stilted.
Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, agreed that quasi-judicial hearings must be held to a different standard from other types of public hearings.
“If it was a quasi-judicial hearing, there are different rules. It would need to be relevant to the situation,” Hibbard said.
However, exactly how much of the comments should have been reined in is subjective.
In the end, in spite of Collins’ best efforts, the meeting did provide a forum for the public to express their opinions about the proposed Wal-mart. While more members of the public spoke in opposition to the project than in support of it, the decision rested with the board and it chose to grant the application without requiring any additional measures from the developers.