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Walmart makes one more try: Safety concerns neighbors

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About a decade ago, hundreds of residents packed meetings to oppose a Center Grove area Walmart store, but this time they don’t have much recourse.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wanted to build a 212,000-square-foot store off State Road 135, but significant public opposition led the Greenwood Plan Commission to vote against annexing and rezoning two different sites the Arkansas-based retail giant had been considering.

The retailer now wants to build a smaller, 152,434-square-foot store at a site near State Road 135 and Smith Valley Road that it looked at in 2004. The company no longer needs the city’s permission, senior planning director Bill Peeples said.

Last time, Greenwood blocked a Walmart store in White River Township because the land had to be annexed and rezoned. But now, the site is within city limits and zoned to allow exactly the type of store that Wal-Mart Stores wants to build, Peeples said.

Greenwood has no discretion about whether a Walmart store can be built on that site, and the Greenwood City Council won’t consider the issue, Peeples said.

The city can’t block a store as long as the company follows all the planning department’s rules, but Greenwood still could make additional requirements to address concerns residents have raised, including added traffic at an already congested intersection.

Residents mobilized against a Center Grove area Walmart when it was first proposed in 2003 and went on to form the group White River Citizens United, which remains active in community issues today.

Attorney Lynn Gray represented the group when it successfully defeated two proposed Walmart locations in 2004. Wal-Mart Stores contacted her about its revived plans to open a White River Township supercenter, and she put them in contact with the group of residents so they could discuss aesthetic issues, such as brick masonry and landscaping.

Gray said she reviewed the plans and determined there was little that White River Citizens United or other residents could do to prevent the store from being built.

“It complies with the zoning,” she said. “I didn’t feel I could legally assist the homeowners and didn’t want them to incur any unnecessary legal costs.”

‘The traffic situation’

White River Citizens United board member Simon Morse said he was not speaking on behalf of the group but had no particular objection to a Walmart store.

He wished the company would build a store at a less congested location farther south because of the traffic, especially the backups for drivers trying to turn left from Smith Valley Road to go north on State Road 135.

“It’s just a bad area to put it with the traffic situation,” he said.

The proposal goes before the plan commission Monday. All that the plan commission will decide is whether the Walmart store can have about 100 fewer parking spaces than what the city would normally require so a second parking lot wouldn’t need to be built behind the store, Peeples said.

Wal-Mart Stores doesn’t want to put a parking lot behind the store because customers likely wouldn’t be willing to walk 600 to 1,000 feet to the front entrance. City planners also are concerned that parking lot lights would disturb neighbors in the nearby Shepherd’s Grove subdivision, and that a hidden and isolated parking lot could become a magnet for crime, Peeples said.

The retailer’s alternate proposal is to build a fenced-off rainwater-collection pond behind the store and a parking lot with 654 spaces in the front. If that plan is not approved, the store would have two parking lots and an underground drainage tank behind the building.

All the plan commission will decide is how much parking is needed, not whether the store should be allowed, Peeples said.

The project would then go before the technical review committee, which would be asked to approve the site development and construction plans. The board of public works and safety also would approve bonds for $450,000 in site development work so that Greenwood would get money to complete the construction if Wal-Mart Stores didn’t.

Greenwood expects to hear from people opposed to the store, given its history of controversy, Peeples said.

“There are probably going to be people coming out against it,” he said. “But some of them will be shopping there the first day it opens.”

But those city boards can’t decide whether the proposed store can be built, just what the retailer will be required to do, such as if it would have to add turn lanes, a stoplight or a median on nearby roads.

‘Be a good neighbor’

Donna Cale, president of the homeowners association in the neighboring Shepherd’s Grove subdivision, said she hoped the city would address concerns such as congestion before allowing a Walmart.

“We’ve got nothing against Walmart, and some of us even shop there,” she said. “We just want them to be a good neighbor.”

Cale and other Shepherd’s Grove residents expect that their new neighbor will have a lot of visitors, crowding an already-congested intersection with even more traffic. She hopes the city will widen Smith Valley Road or do something else about the congestion before allowing a Walmart store.

“The traffic is bad all weekend long,” she said. “It’s not just rush hour. It’s a big concern for us.”

Shepherd’s Grove residents also are concerned about the proposal to build a rainwater-collection pond behind the store, because the water likely would drain into a lower-lying pond in their neighborhood, Cale said. They fear that will clog their pond with silt and require additional drainage, which would be a huge cost for a small homeowners association to bear, she said.

They’d prefer to see an underground drainage tank and also want Walmart to be required to put up tall trees and a high fence, Cale said.

A fence should be at least eight feet high because people can hop shorter fences, Shepherd’s Grove resident Ruth Hansen said. She’d also like to see tall evergreen trees to block off the lights from the parking lot and the sound of the traffic that the store would likely attract around the clock.

“They need to put in the tallest trees they can find,” she said.

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