WENDELL — Despite recommendations from town staff opposing the change, commissioners last week voted to loosen the town’s open space laws – a move that’s expected to cut costs for one of the world’s richest companies as it plans to open a Wal-Mart Express on Wendell Boulevard.
At the request of Wal-Mart, Wendell commissioners on May 13 voted 4-1 to waive open space requirements for any commercial developments with buildings less than 50,000 square feet. The ordinance previously applied to any commercial building more than 10,000 square feet. Wal-Mart Express buildings typically range from 10,000-to-15,000 square feet in size, according to Wendell staff.
To forego open space requirements, businesses could pay a fee based the size and value of the development. It remains unclear how much money the ordinance amendment saved Wal-Mart and thus, cost Wendell. The company, recently rated No. 1 on the Fortune 500 list for 2013, has yet to submit blueprints or development plans. Wal-Mart has also been slow in returning phone calls, Wendell Town Manager Teresa Piner said.
That lack of communication prompted Wendell town staff’s opposition to the ordinance amendment: “We had hoped to have a conversation as to reasons (the open space requirement) would not work,” Piner told commissioners. “Because we didn’t have those discussions, we didn’t have numbers to look at and compare.”
Yet the town’s pressing need for economic development seemed to eclipse the town board’s yearning for details.
Commissioner Sam Laughery described the vote as a “no-brainer.” In reviewing Wendell’s ordinances, Laughery said he found them to be more restrictive than neighboring towns.
“When you find something is wrong, you should change it as soon as possible,” Laughery said.
He noted the move would likely increase the town’s tax base, which has been stagnant in recent years.
Paul White, president of Universal Chevrolet in Wendell and member of the newly-formed Economic Development Committee, and Michael Hunter, president of the Wendell Chamber of Commerce, said they, too, favored the amendment.
Commissioner Christie Adams cast the lone dissenting vote. She hoped to acquire more details about the proposed Wal-Mart Express before changing the town’s development policies.
“We haven’t seen enough to warrant throwing out an entire standard ... because we’ve had absolutely no communication from them,” Adams said.
She also bemoaned the board’s lack of loyalty to Wendell’s UDO.
“We seem to respond in a knee-jerk fashion when someone asks us to change one of our standards,” Adams said. “If we just continue to change things when folks ask us to, we should just throw the UDO in the trash.”
With the vote, Adams said commissioners may have done more to hurt small businesses like Wendell Drug and the town’s bottom line simply because Wal-Mart “sent a whisper into Wendell that they didn’t like our rules.”
The engineering firm acting as Wal-Mart’s liaison to Wendell did not return calls seeking comment.