Wal-Mart's plan wins approval from Mount Airy planning panel Opposition lingers to 85,000-square-foot store near Route 27

November 11, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

With town planning commission approval, Wal-Mart is another step closer to opening a store near Route 27 in Mount Airy.

The six-member commission voted unanimously Monday in favor of the plan for an 85,000-square-foot discount store on 14 acres behind Mount Airy Shopping Center.

The property near Route 27 and Ridgeville Boulevard is zoned commercial, leaving the commission few options for denying Wal-Mart's plan to build in the town of 5,000.

"We cannot take away the rights of those who want to enlarge their property," said Oscar Baker, town planning commissioner. "This is a commercial piece of property, and we have a growing population. We cannot shut the door."

As soon as some residents learned of the Wal-Mart plan last spring, they began to marshal opposition.

"I support the commercial use, but it should fit the size and nature of our town," said Jack Caddy, who helped found Citizens for a Better Mount Airy, a group that opposes Wal-Mart.

Plan approval is contingent on major road improvements, a new entrance with traffic signals from Ridgeville Boulevard and no access from the store onto Main Street.

One resident had asked that Gary Rappaport, a shopping center developer who also owns the Wal-Mart tract, deed to the town property along Main Street to protect its historic character. Rappaport refused, saying Wal-Mart wanted to keep that access option open.

"There is no way we can require them to deed Main Street land to the town," said Planning Commissioner William Stroh. "We can deny them access."

For Carroll Street resident Pamela Zeller, the developer's refusal shows a lack of sensitivity to residents' concerns.

"Wal-Mart has vowed to keep pushing for the next 50 years into the heart of our historic community," said Zeller. "We depend on the commission to judge the quality of our new neighbor."

Planning Commissioner Joe Jansen said the decision could have nothing to do with such judgments.

"Unfortunately, we cannot judge who can come in or not based on [good-neighbor qualities]," Jansen said.

In an effort to eliminate confusion over proposed road improvements, a traffic consultant for the developer used a computerized model to simulate peak-hour traffic flow on roads surrounding the shopping center.

The model, which one resident compared to a video game, showed improvements and new signals, including one at Ridge Road and the center.

In the model, displayed in color on a large screen, traffic moved briskly without backups, despite estimates of 6,000 more vehicles a day once the discount store opens.

"This looks like the Mount Airy beltway," said resident Michele jTC Johnson as the model appeared on the screen. "Why would anybody want that here in Mount Airy?"

The commission also approved Rappaport's plan to expand the 20-year-old shopping center, which he purchased about two years ago, by about 38,000 square feet of retail space. The proposal includes an addition to and renovation of the Safeway supermarket, the center's anchor store.

The expansion approval is contingent on many of the same conditions placed on Wal-Mart.

If Rappaport makes major changes to either plan, he will have to appear before the commission again.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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