County dodging responsibility for Walmart
In his Oct. 28 guest opinion County Manager Michael Brown describes a county powerless in the face of Walmart, the implication being that the new Walmart will be approved in whatever form Walmart wants. This is common here.
My experience watching the county permit process is that the focus is on what the county cannot do rather than on what it can do, the result being that the developer’s desires consistently trump those of the community. The sad fact is that the county basically chooses to be powerless. Let’s look at three examples from the review of this project.
First, a (conveniently? intentionally?) missed opportunity. This land has been designated commercial since approval of the Virginia Ranch Specific Plan in 2004. That plan calls for what The RC describes as “… village-like, pedestrian-friendly development compatible with historic downtown.” In other words, the opposite of a Walmart.
In May 2009, less than three months before the Walmart application was filed, the county commission approved a planned development overlay zone for this property. That was an opportunity to set detailed regulations to ensure that development of this site would follow the specific plan.
It was quite clear then what was going to happen here.
The R-C ran a story about the overlay zone on April 10, a month before the county commission’s action on it, just after its review by the Gardnerville Town Board. That article said the town board “… voted unanimously to change 24.84 acres of agricultural land within the Virginia Ranch Specific Plan into general commercial with a planned-development overlay … [project representative Keith] Ruben said it will most likely be a large box store on the rear portion of the site … [and a] study assumed that the commercial area would be developed with 200,000 square feet of shopping center land use.”
There it was for all to see, up to 200,000 square feet of big box retail on a site planned for village-like, pedestrian-friendly development compatible with the historic downtown.
But the county apparently ignored the specific plan and took no advantage of that opportunity to better control this site and just approved what the owners requested. Setting the stage for Mr. Brown to now say the county is powerless. But its actions in May imply it has chosen to be so.
Question for the county commission: Why did you approve zoning for big box retail when your specific plan clearly calls for the opposite?
Next we have Mr. Brown explaining that Walmart is subject to only an administrative design review with no hearings by the county, unless an adjacent neighbor appeals. Which would explain why Walmart is taking extra time to work with those neighbors. So the county officials who laid the groundwork for this by approving the zoning last spring likely won’t have to face the public now. How convenient.
But what Mr. Brown doesn’t say is that that is a choice that county staff has made. They actually have the authority to refer the Walmart application to the planning commission for a public hearing but have chosen not to do so. Section 20.614.050, which governs decisions on design review, states, “The director in his sole discretion may refer the design review for review and decision by the planning commission … at a public hearing …”
So, we could have the public hearing before the planning commission that this project clearly warrants. The county simply doesn’t want that.
Finally we must return to that Virginia Ranch Specific Plan. Mr. Brown says design review “… is a process where the exterior look or building elevations are examined to ensure that they are consistent with any conceptual plans that guide development on the site.” So it’s just about how this particular Walmart is designed, not whether we should have a Walmart at all. Or whether we should instead have the village-like, pedestrian-friendly development called for by the Virginia Ranch Specific Plan.
Again, Mr. Brown tells us only half the story. Design review is certainly about the design of the buildings. But, according to our codes, the first finding required for design approval is that, “The proposed development is consistent with the goals and policies embodied in the adopted master plan and the general purpose and intent of the applicable [zoning] district regulations.” The specific plan is a creature of the master plan and zoning regulations and its provisions must be considered a requirement here. Otherwise, what is its purpose?
I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time finding a Walmart to be a “… village-like, pedestrian-friendly development compatible with historic downtown.” Which is perhaps why Mr. Brown conveniently ignores the required finding, a common approach here. Sort of like having the officials who erect a stop sign consistently running it.
This project clearly demonstrates the disconnect between planning and permitting in Douglas County. And how our officials manipulate our rules to avoid having to take responsibility for seeing that our plans are actually implemented during the permit process.
Only five years ago our officials adopted a plan that said we were to have a village-like, pedestrian-friendly development in Virginia Ranch. And now they are delivering a Walmart. And throwing up their hands and saying there is nothing they can do about it.
But it would seem their powerlessness now is a result of their own past actions and decisions rather than any inherent limitation on their authority. They have, in a sense, given away the store to allow the store. A store that is the opposite of what our plans call for.
So Walmart will likely get what it wants, the community and its plans will be largely ignored and our commissioners will avoid getting their hands dirty with this decision. How convenient.
A more honest approach would be to take the specific plan seriously, require that Walmart apply to amend it to allow big box retail, hold the hearings that would require and then, if the county wants Walmart, amend the specific plan to allow it. Don’t hold your breath.
Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville resident and retired Bay area planner.