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Permit battle takes a twist
Retailer revisits original location
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Forsyth County News

While the permit for one proposed south Forsyth Walmart is under appeal, the retailer has submitted plans for a second site nearby.

On Monday, Walmart requested a site development permit for a nearly 180,000-square-foot store at Peachtree and Laurel Springs parkways, the same location it first sought in 2006.

The 33-acre property is about a mile south of the 24-acre site at Peachtree and Mathis Airport parkways, for which the county planning department has issued a site development permit for a nearly 178,000-square-foot store.

But that permit, issued in January, is pending due to a challenge by Smart Growth Forsyth County and the Laurel Springs Homeowners Association.

The groups have appealed the administrative decision to grant the permit, contending the county should require the store to meet all the standards of the Peachtree Parkway Overlay District.

The district sets aesthetic requirements for retail along the south Forsyth corridor.

Walmart’s plan at the currently contested site calls for nearly all the parking in front of the store, rather than the 60 percent maximum set by the overlay.

The company maintains it has vested rights in the property, which was zoned and had a detention pond built before the overlay was created in 2007.

Smart Growth and Laurel Springs, as stated in the written appeal, contend “that the vested rights of the developer do not exempt Walmart from the site design requirements.”

The retailer should be required to follow the overlay, the appeal states, which would allow for a maximum store size of 125,000 square feet with 300 parking spaces in front and 200 on the side.

The appeal was scheduled for the March 5 meeting of the county zoning board, but was postponed to April 2. It was announced at the meeting that both sides had agreed to the delay.

Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Walmart, said the appeal has stalled the store’s plans, and the second site request could be a better route to move forward.

“Forsyth County has waited long enough for more jobs and lower prices,” Wertz said. “Jobs and lower prices matter more than the location of parking spaces.”

The property near Laurel Springs was bought by Walmart as part of the original 2006 proposal, while the company doesn’t own the Mathis Airport site.

Smart Growth opposed granting a stream buffer variance for the Laurel Springs site. In response to resident opposition, the Mathis site was rezoned in 2006 by the county as an alternate store location.

Walmart removed its plans for the Laurel Springs store in 2008 after commissioners sided with Smart Growth to uphold the stream buffers, which would have reduced the maximum square footage.

Wertz said the store didn’t build on the site it owned because “we thought [the Mathis site] was more suitable.”

“We anticipated moving forward … without further efforts to block our plans on the airport road property, but now Smart Growth Forsyth is appealing our permit and threatening legal action if we proceed,” he said.

“It’s clear that the building site is not the issue. They’re determined to block Walmart no matter what.”

Bob Slaughter, Smart Growth deputy director, said the issue is defending the overlay, which was put in place in 2007.

The latest development permit request would put the store at the entrance to Laurel Springs subdivision, which Slaughter believes is a tactic to encourage them to drop the appeal.

“They’re trying to position this in front of the neighborhood to make this an either/or proposition,” Slaughter said. “They’re claiming they can build the same size store on that site without getting a stream buffer variance, which is, I think, physically impossible.”

He said the second permit request won’t have any impact on Smart Growth’s appeal.

County planning director Tom Brown said the department has not reviewed the latest request, but that it would be evaluated independently.

The county will “expect to see them comply with the overlay” unless Walmart presents a case otherwise, Brown said.

He said the plans won’t require a public hearing for approval if Walmart already received sketch plat approval, which county records show was granted in 2004.