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Wal-Mart up for final decision in September

By Michael Davis

The residents surrounding a controversial Wal-Mart proposed near their neighborhood will have to make one more trip in front of county leaders to show their disfavor of the shopping giant.

If plans are approved by Henry County officials, a proposed 24-hour Super Center would be built at the corner of Fairview Road and Anvil Block Road in the Ellenwood community in Henry County.

Residents packed the Henry County Administration building Thursday evening to oppose a rezoning request that would allow the national retail giant to build there. Some, undeterred by not finding seats, stood stoically along a back wall.

The Henry County Municipal Planning Commission, a recommending body, voted to deny the controversial proposal, but the board of commissioners will have the final decision when the proposal comes before them Sept. 21.

But a handful of residents turned out to support the Wal-Mart coming to the area. Standing with a group of about 16, Fred Howard said he supports the proposal.

Howard lives directly behind the 34-acre site where the 203,000-square-foot center is proposed.

"I'd rather have a Wal-Mart than have more houses," he said. "We've got enough houses."

Howard also cited the more than 400 jobs the Super Center is expected to create.

But others in the neighborhood, waving red, octagonal signs with a symbol for "stop Wal-Mart" vehemently opposed the rezoning.

Citing references planners for Wal-Mart made to new home construction near other Super Centers in Snellville and Dunwoody, resident Jimmy Etheridge balked.

"Comparing Dunwoody to Fairview is like comparing apples to oranges," Etheridge said.

"Sam Walton was a devoted family man and if he were alive today I do not think he would approve of the community-destroying, greed-driven behemoth his company's become," he said.

Plans for the Wal-Mart call for 203,091-square-feet of retail space, but negotiators for Wal-Mart dropped a proposal for an out parcel on the corner of Fairview Road and Cook Drive. McDonough attorney Bruce McFarland, representing the property-owners, said that a bank had expressed interest in the 2.66-acre site, but Wal-Mart officials conceded to leave the area wooded.

Cook Drive aligns with Ascot Drive on the other side of Fairview Road forming the entrance of the Montclair subdivision.

A groundswell of opposition grew up around the Wal-Mart proposal since the initial rezoning request came before planning officials. In November 2003, the planning commission tabled the request to await a study of the impact of traffic generated by the store and set up town hall meetings with residents.

Residents in the Montclair, Montclair Place and other nearby subdivisions have long had "Say No to Wal-Mart" signs staked in their yards. And earlier this week, residents held an anti-Wal-Mart rally.

A Wal-Mart planner said that because of meetings with neighbors and county officials, developers had made several amendments to the site plan since the initial meetings. One Wal-Mart representative described the proposed building as a "level two" with a construction value higher than any other store in Georgia.

Store design officials said the retail chain was willing to make an estimated $1 million in road improvements near the site, including traffic signals at the Fairview Road intersections with Anvil Block Road and Cook Drive.

"Obviously some people can not be satisfied," the Wal-Mart official said.

Henry County Public Works Division Director Michael Harris said some of the road work Wal-Mart is proposing doesn't appear in state and local transportation plans for five years or more.

Some residents expressed concern that should the store be built and later closed, their neighborhood would be blighted by a monstrous, empty store. "Wal-Mart has never closed a Super Center," one Wal-Mart official said.

Wal-Mart officials also discounted a rumor that a Wal-Mart on Ga. Highway 138 would be closed if the proposed store is opened.

A Wal-Mart Super Center is slated for Hudson Bridge Road as well. A store planner said the corporation's business model now shows stores pulling a shopping market from about a five-mile radius around the store. "They're opening centers within five miles of each other," he said.

With a recommendation that the Henry board of commissioners deny the request, planning commission member Dawn Davis, who represents the district where the Wal-Mart is proposed, suggested that if county commissioners were to approve the rezoning, that they apply a laundry list of conditions to the property.

Twenty-one zoning conditions were passed along with the planning board's denial recommendation, including lighting restrictions, strict building material and landscaping requirements, signage restrictions and buffer mandates.