Since it cannot build its superstore, will Walmart try something else?

Proposed Michigan Rd. Walmart Rendering

Proposed Michigan Rd. Walmart Rendering

Hundreds of residents packed Town Hall last Tuesday night to hear whether or not the Board of Zoning Appeals was going to allow a Walmart Superstore to build in their town. The majority of them left very happy.

Walmart wanted to build a 156,621-square-foot superstore on land it purchased in 2005  on Michigan Road north of 106th Street, but at the end of a spirited three-hour debate, board members voted 4-0 against Walmart’s request.

The primary sticking point revolved around the size of the proposed store. Walmart representatives were requesting a variance from two of the Town’s business zoning restrictions.

The ordinance states that no single use facility, whether free-standing or contained in an integrated center, can exceed 60,000 square feet of gross floor area and no integrated center can exceed 125,000 square feet of total gross floor area.

Walmart’s facility was more than double the size of the 60,000 square foot limit and about 30,000 square feet over the integrated center restriction. Comparatively, the existing Marsh at 106th Street and Michigan Road is approximately 64,000 square feet.

Walmart’s attorney Joe Calderon presented the store’s side, arguing that the proposed size was comparable to the nearby Target and Home Depot stores located just south of 106th Street on Michigan Road.

“What we propose tonight fits with the corridor. It is not unusual, atypical,” Calderon said. “What these size restrictions fail to do is look at proportionality standards and what fits on that piece of land. We’ve met every other standard except the variances.”

Remonstrators and the town staff disagreed with this logic, citing 106th Street as a “transitional boundary” and using Carmel’s zoning ordinances as an example. In 2006, both Carmel and Zionsville worked in collaboration to create ordinances limiting building size, with 106th Street as a border which begins an area of less intense commercial development that transitions to residential developments.

Lana Funkhouser, a past Board of Appeals and Plan Commission member who was part of those earlier discussions, confirmed, “there was a distinction between north and south of 106th Street.”

Wendy Brant, a 54-year resident and former Boone County commissioner, added, “We wanted to see a transition to residential areas that would not affect property values.”

Carmel’s ordinance does not restrict “big box” development along Michigan Road until north of 106th Street, when an 85,000-square-foot restriction begins. In 2006, Zionsville adopted the 60,000-square-foot restriction for businesses within town borders no matter the location.

Arguments presented by remonstrators, mostly residents of Zionsville, ranged from concerns over increased crime to the store being open 24 hours to decreased property values. Discussion around Walmart identifying themselves as an “Integrated center” was also disputed as only 2,800 square feet of the proposed 156,621 square feet would be dedicated to “tenants” with no individual entries nor resemblance to other integrated centers in the area, such as Boone Village.

A petition in opposition to Walmart signed by more than 800 residents was also presented to the Board, and during the evening, only one supporter of Walmart stepped to the microphone saying, “I got my start at Walmart and maybe, in this store, someone else will too.”

Near the end of the meeting, Wayne Delong, the director of Planning & Economic Development for the Town of Zionsville, summarized in his staff report that the Petitioner had not clearly identified why it needed a variance of development standards beyond the 60,000 square fee allowed.

A similar summary statement was included in the report for the 125,000-square-foot variance request for an integrated center: “As staff, we cannot conclude from Petitioner’s filing that what is being proposed qualifies as an integrated center.”

Board Member Gregory Morical concluded the discussion by stating, “One point that is important to make is that the burden is on the petitioner to show us why they need the variance. Based upon what we heard tonight and the findings of fact, I feel they failed to meet that burden.”

As the vote passed and both variance requests were denied, the crowd was elated. Leigh Ann Akard, owner of Akard True Value in Boone Village commented, “Regardless of who it is, it was such a huge request. I think the Board of Zoning made the right decision otherwise they would be setting a precedent.” She added, “It’s not a small, ‘can we bend?’ It was ‘how far can we bend’?”

Small business owner Scott Brothers, owner of Window Genie in Zionsville, was also in favor of the Board’s decision.

“I’m excited the Town listened to the community and put the community’s feelings ahead of pure economic reasons,” Brothers said. “The property is valuable and we just have to find the right use for it.”

Town Council member Susana Suarez also commented on the economic issues surrounding the decision.

“Town Council members were in a quandry,” she said. “We want to increase the tax revenue, but the public sentiment was against it. Walmart did not meet the requirements. It’s a bittersweet issue for us.”

Board of Zoning Appeals members as well as DeLong were unable to comment on the meeting until the negative findings of fact are adopted in the March Board of Zoning Appeals meeting.

Despite the excitement with most residents over the variance request being denied, the battle may not be completely won. After the meeting, Walmart Senior Director Public Affairs and Government Relations Nicholas Infante said, “We presented our best case, a store that would service the Village and surrounding areas, something that has worked in our experience.”

When asked if they would sell the land and move on, Infante said, “It’s been eight years of work. We’ll have to regroup and see what our options are.”

One option is to change the building design to meet the size requirements and refile in one year, per Board procedures. However, according to DeLong, “Petitioners can ask the Board to refile early if there is a substantial change in the petition. We’ve done that before. It’s not unchartered.”

Time will tell if the War-mart battle is finished for good, or if it’s just a stalemate.


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