June 23, 2000
The proposition of a 220,000-square-foot Super Wal-Mart in East Asheville has been stirring many citizens to action against its arrival. However, speakers at last night's public forum concerning the proposal advised that much more citizen action will be required to stop this economic giant from setting up shop on the Swannanoa River Road Sales Bleachery site.
City Councilman Brian Peterson made a surprise appearance to explain the structure council hearings will take. City Council will be hearing arguments from both sides in an impartial judicial capacity called a quasi-judicial proceeding.
"I'm a lawyer and I don't even understand it all," Peterson said. He did explain that in such a proceeding, council can only consider the public record and evidence presented at the proceeding itself. Peterson stressed that attendance at the council meeting, tentatively scheduled for July 25, and submissions to the public record will be the only ways to have a say in the decision. Letters will be more effective than other means of communication.
As with a traditional court case, Council must avoid being influenced by opinions and evidence that are not part of the proceedings. Additionally, if there is ever an appeal of the council's decision, an appeals court will not be able to consider new evidence, only that which was presented at the original proceedings, which includes the public record.
For more in depth information about the quasi-judicial format and other planning statutes, visit the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) area of the city's website.
"We're talking about a socioeconomic parasite known as Wal-Mart," said Eamon Martin, publisher and an editor of the Asheville Global Report, who presented economic and labor issues to the forum.
Other speakers took a less anti-Wal-Mart stance. Dr. Ned Guttman, a physical scientist at the National Climatic Data Center and East Asheville resident, addressed traffic concerns and said the issue is not whether one likes or dislikes this hugely successful discount chain. Opinions will not sway the Asheville City Council. He advised sticking to the facts: public safety issues, whether the store is reasonably necessary for the public health or general welfare, and whether it will cause a traffic hazard.
On just one Wednesday in April 1999, a study recorded 8,300 vehicles traveling on Swannanoa River Road, which is where the superstore plans to have its entrance. A two-percent increase would account for typical growth over the last year. However, growth in East Asheville is presently anything but typical. There is now a new, bigger Lowes, an Office Environs complex in the works, and an expansion of the Asheville Mall underway.
Guttman said the level of service at nine of the eleven nearby intersections is expected to decrease if Wal-Mart is added to the mix and sited these traffic increase projections:
- I-240 exit 8, 14 percent increase
- Oakley, 7-12 percent increase
- Swannanoa River Road, 12 percent increase
- South Tunnel Road, 15-20 percent increase
- Residential areas north of the site, 4-5 percent increase
- As many as 18,000 vehicles in all visiting the new store daily
Jim Bannon, board member of Smart Growth Partners of WNC, presented the argument that a Super Wal-Mart is not in line with Asheville's Sustainable Economic Development Strategic Plan. Some of the Plan's goals are to preserve Asheville's unique character, revitalize downtown, and revitalize the riverfront as an asset for both enhancing quality of life and attracting economic activity.
Bannon cited the 15-acre parking lot that would detract from the riverfront aesthetic and the likelihood that the superstore would put unique local stores out of business, including downtown businesses, as ways in which this proposition conflicts with the city's development objectives. By being designed exclusively for automotive access, Bannon argues that superstores encourage urban sprawl, which is also in opposition to the strategic plan. After all, he asked, who wants to cross high traffic roads and 15 acres of asphalt on foot to reach a business?
Pollution that will damage the quality of the Swannanoa River adjacent to the site, while undesirable in and of itself, is also in opposition to the Strategic Plan's desire to revitalize the River District. Hydrologist and Warren Wilson College Professor of Environmental Studies Dr. Jim Hauser described the huge parking lot's pollution potential to forum attendees.
"It's the largest parking lot I've ever seen," remarked Hauser. "It could be a tourist attraction in and of itself." Hauser and some of his Warren Wilson students recently did a study on a much smaller scale, a quarter acre lot, to determine the impact a parking lot can have on waterways.
The number one pollutant carried in asphalt runoff is hydrocarbon oil. Hydrocarbon oils:
- are virtually nonbiodegradable.
- are easily absorbed into organic soil material like sediment.
- concentrate other pollutants when they lay on the water's surface.
- kill aquatic life, especially amphibians that are at the bottom of the food chain, which means all other species are in turn affected.
- are suspected of being carcinogenic.
The Warren Wilson quarter-acre parking lot study found a year's worth of rain suspended 168 grams of oil in their nearby stream's water, which doesn't count the oil absorbed by sediment now laying at the bottom of the stream. "Even a tiny amount can kill amphibians," Hauser said.
While Eamon Martin did spend a fair amount of time siting Wal-Mart's abysmal worker's rights practices in foreign countries, he did address three points that are likely to affect Ashevillians more directly:
- Most of the money that goes into Wal-Mart will leave the community, thereby not adding but subtracting from the local economy.
- Studies suggest that approximately 100 locally owned business will close for each Wal-Mart that opens in a city.
- Wal-Mart is not likely to offer desirable new jobs. Two thirds of Wal-Mart's workers have no health benefits. In under four years, Wal-Mart violated child labor laws 1,436 times in just one state.
When the July council meeting commences, "the game will be bodies," said East Asheville activist Rebecca Campbell. "The more people who show up, the better the chance of beating this economic cancer." Once this fight is won, Campbell expressed her hope that the energies poured into fighting Wal-Mart can then be directed at developing a better plan for the riverside site.
One of the forum organizers, Bill Evans with Community Supported Development (CSD), noted that there are other proposals for the site on the back burner, but Asheville City Council must decide against Wal-Mart before it can even consider the alternatives.
CSD has also been circulating a petition that is available here on MAIN for print out.