Baldwin City Planning Commission tables Wal-Mart Express development plan
The Baldwin City Planning Commission voted Tuesday to table Wal-Mart Inc.’s development plan for a Wal-Mart Express on U.S. Highway 56 pending the submission of a traffic study and the Baldwin City Council’s review of the plan for compatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan.
The two motions were passed after planning commissioner Steve Bauer’s motion to deny the plan for incompatibility with the comprehensive plan, which was met with applause from the about 100 residents at the meeting, failed to find a second.
The planning commission’s decisions put the ball in Wal-Mart’s court. City Administrator Chris Lowe said the company can appeal the decision directly to the City Council, agree to submit a traffic study or abandon its plans for the Baldwin City store now planned for a lot north of U.S. 56 between Eisenhower Road and Washington Street.
Planning commissioner Ted Madl quickly objected to the lack of a traffic study in the development plan. It was an absence compounded by the development plan’s inclusion of an entrance to the store from U.S. 56, in addition to one off Eisenhower Road. The property’s current landowner Roger Johnson told the planning commission a highway entrance would not be part of a future development during a June hearing on the property’s re-platting.
“We approved the re-plat without any exit but on Eisenhower,” Madl said. “I don’t like to do it one way and turn around and be asked to do something completely different.”
Kent Vedder of BFA, the engineering firm representing Wal-Mart, said he did not know of Johnson’s agreement on that point.
The re-plat required enough property along Eisenhower Road be set aside to widen that street in the future, but Madl said that wasn’t enough. His view was Eisenhower would have to be widened west of store when the store was built and two turn lanes added on the street at the highway to prevent traffic headaches before and after school and during special school events.
Madl found support for the demand for a traffic study, with Bauer the only planning commissioner to vote against the requirement. His vote was based on the hope Wal-Mart would drop plans for Baldwin City because the store was not compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan.
His motion that the City Council make a finding on the proposed Wal-Mart Express’ compatibility with the 2008 comprehensive plan was approved 4-0.
In his comments before making the motion to deny the development plan, Bauer cited passages from the comprehensive plan of preserving the character of residential neighborhoods, promoting diverse commercial activity and safeguarding the city’s small-town atmosphere. It was from the comprehensive plan and its objectives that the city’s zoning rules grew and were meant to support, he said.
Bauer objected to city staff’s written cautions that all planning commissioners' votes for denial had to be based on city zoning regulations and failure to do so would expose the city to litigation. Bauer characterized the warning as “extortion” and said he made many decisions in his business that he thought were right despite the threat of lawsuits.
There were specific features in the Wal-Mart Express development plan that violated the comprehensive plan, providing justification for its denial, Bauer said.
Once planning commissioners agreed to open the meeting to public comment, Baldwin City attorney Blake Glover noted he had anticipated in his comments to the City Council on Monday Bauer’s appeal to the comprehensive plan as the reason to deny the development plan. He restated that position Tuesday, citing passages in the comprehensive plan defining its goal as preserving Baldwin City’s small-town atmosphere and maintaining viability of downtown.
Glover further quoted a passage in the comprehensive plan that cited as something to avoid Gardner’s sprawling growth along traffic thoroughfares and away from historic districts.
Justification for denial could also be found in the comprehensive plan’s call for “diverse” economic growth, Glover said. The Wal-Mart Express wouldn’t provide that because it would only offer items already available from other city retailers, which would be hard-pressed to survive the company’s pricing, he said.
In responses to other audience questions, Lowe summed up the history of the development proposal and the ways it could play out.
Lowe said city staff, planning commission nor the City Council knew at the time of the June re-plat that Wal-Mart planned a store on the site. That request was made in the name of property owner Roger Johnson, and city staff worked with the engineering firm BFA, he said.
Planning commissioners said they were never told who planned to develop the site despite asking during the re-platting.
It was only on June 26 that the city got the first documents with the name Wal-Mart on them, Lowe said. It didn’t get official notification until July 1 that Wal-Mart proposed building a Wal-Mart Express at the site, he said.
As for its next step, Wal-Mart could drop plans to build a store in Baldwin City, Lowe said. The company could also appeal Tuesday’s planning commission decisions to the council, he said.
Another option open to Wal-Mart would be to comply with the request for a traffic study and bring that to the planning commission with a request for its final approval of the development plan, Lowe said. Should that be denied, it could appeal that decision to the City Council.
With Tuesday’s planning commission action, the City Council would review the development plan for compatibility with the comprehensive plan at a coming meeting, Lowe said. City staff would prepare a report on the topic for the council’s consideration, he said.
He would have to give thought on how staff would approach that report but said it would consider key points in the comprehensive plan, Lowe said.