Originally created 10/03/00

Possible Wal-Mart dismays residents



Before rumors of a Wal-Mart coming to the Evans Town Center are confirmed, area residents are joining forces to oppose it.

"My fears are that it's going to bring down the value of our homes," said Anthony Gancasz, president of the Chimney Hill neighborhood association.

Wyatt Development Co. Inc., which develops major commercial properties - including Wal-Marts - has signed an option on 30.6 acres in the Evans Town Center area.

"The reason why we moved to Columbia County was for the quality of life and the beautiful surroundings. Now they want to sell out to the highest bidder and rape and pillage what's around them to get the almighty buck," Mr. Gancasz said.

When the Evans Town Center - a 1.5-mile radius centered on the intersection of Belair and Washington roads - first was envisioned, the idea was to develop a quaint area with boutiques, restaurants and parks. It wasn't going to be a place for large strip malls with acres of black asphalt and lawn mowers and swing-sets parked out front.

But despite the assurances that development mistakes of the past wouldn't be repeated in the area designated for "controlled growth," the county is unable to stop large-scale development.

The possible building site is surrounded by subdivisions such as Chimney Hill, Country Place and Camelot.

"We knew this was a commercial piece of property that sat behind us, but we never considered anything like that even looking at a location like this," said William Newsome, a Chimney Hill resident. "I just don't see a Wal-Mart with the massive parking lot they usually build fitting into that spot, and if they do they are going to be right on top of us. We don't need a behemoth operation backed up to a neighborhood like this."

The Evans Town Center concept began with "charettes" - a fancy name for town meetings.

But it may end with a Wal-Mart. And by it's own doing, the county is powerless to stop it.

"I certainly can't say no (to Wal-Mart)," said Kendall Jones, director of planning and zoning.

The original intent was to have smaller-scale, pedestrian-oriented shopping, restaurants and offices and maybe some higher-density homes close by with lots of open space and places where people could gather together for community events.

"The property owners, the ones with the larger tracts of land, are the ones who, in effect, changed the direction or the vision of the Evans Town Center because they wanted this option, to be able to sell their property to large-scale users," Ms. Jones said.

"At this point, because our ordinances would not exclude something like a Wal-Mart, the best that we can expect is that they will meet all the landscaping and architectural requirements and that it will be an attractive facility."

Ms. Jones admits such large-scale development will pose some challenges.

"It's certainly not ideal," she said. "But that property has been zoned C-2 - which is a wide open general commercial district - since the late '70s. And sometimes when you approve very speculative type rezonings, this is what happens."

But Mr. Gancasz sees the existing Wal-Mart on Bobby Jones Expressway as a sign of things to come.

"It appears that the commissioners are affected strongly by large land owners, developers, real estate people - they listen more to them than they do the homeowners," he said. "Even though this is part of the overlay district, I don't think this is what they had in mind. We've gone in front of the commissioners in the past, and they said `Don't worry - with this overlay district plan, there shouldn't be the mistakes of the past.' We were lulled into thinking that all was well."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.