Originally created 12/23/01

Wal-Mart makes residents want to roll back



William and Ann Newsome thought they were moving up three years ago when they left their south Augusta neighborhood for the upscale Chimney Hill subdivision off Washington Road in Columbia County.

"We were looking for a nicer, safer neighborhood," Mr. Newsome said.

The house on Chimney Hill Circle had everything they were looking for, including a creek at the edge of the back yard and a wooded area that was home to woodpeckers, deer and wild turkeys.

"We stumbled across this, and it met all our requirements, and we bought it," he said.

Today the trees and wildlife are gone - replaced by a barren, eroding hill topped by the back of an unfinished Wal-Mart Supercenter at Evans Town Center.

"I would love to see it vaporized," Mr. Newsome said. "Right now it's just ugly. Once they open up, you don't know what's coming, but you wouldn't anticipate it would be positive."

Mr. Newsome and other residents of Chimney Hill and surrounding subdivisions expect traffic snarls, delays exiting their neighborhoods, wrecks, litter, lowered property values and crime after the store opens next year.

"I don't think a week goes by there is not a wreck in front of Chimney Hill and Country Place," he said.

The thought of increased traffic and longer-than-usual waits getting out of Chimney Hill has Bob Rountree thinking of moving elsewhere.

"Traffic on Washington Road in the morning from 7 to 8:30, both ways, and at 5 o'clock is bumper to bumper," Mr. Rountree said. "It takes 10 to 15 minutes to get out of the subdivision."

Mr. Rountree and his wife, Paula, have lived in their red-brick Williamsburg-style house on Fieldstone Way for 15 years. They moved there when the street was a dead end and there was only one other house across the street.

"It was rural then," Mr. Rountree said. "Now with Wal-Mart coming, I'm thinking about moving back to the Hill."

Mr. Rountree, 54, retired from Delta Air Lines after 33 1/2 years when Delta left Augusta Regional Airport last December. He was a customer service supervisor. He is now a customer service agent at Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

With their children out of the nest, the Rountrees don't need such a big house, they said.

Mr. Newsome and Anthony Gancasz, the president of the Kettle Creek neighborhood association, are bitter because Columbia County officials did not find a way to stop the store from locating so close to their neighborhood.

"The county officials could care less," Mr. Newsome said. "Everybody was loaded with excuses for Wal-Mart and none to protect the environment and the homeowners' interests," he said.

The zoning for the Wal-Mart property was set in 1976, and officials said they were powerless to stop the store's construction. But they welcome the tax money it will generate to help pay for the county's growing infrastructure needs.

"We need tax money ... so all the burden is not on the homeowners," said Columbia County Commissioner Jim Whitehead, who represents Evans. "Columbia County homeowners are paying about 65 percent of the tax digest. The norm is somewhere between 45 and 50 percent. So we need to create jobs and tax revenue."

The developer, meanwhile, said he hasn't received any complaints about the project.

Since construction began, Wyatt Construction Co. of Aiken has complied with all county and state requirements, said Jim Price, the vice president of Wyatt Realty Service Inc.

"We've tried very hard to be good neighbors, and we have not heard any complaints," Mr. Price said. "The buffer yards we have put in the back of the shopping center are much larger than required by ordinance."

The developers want the shopping center to be a new gateway for the Town Center and are very much aware of the adjoining neighborhood, Mr. Price said. The Town Center is a 1 1/2 -mile area around Washington and Belair roads that's being developed for commercial, recreational and governmental uses.

"We're putting in considerably more trees and landscaping than we are required to put in," Mr. Price said. "We've done everything we can to buffer them as best we can."

County Engineer Jim Leiper said Wyatt Construction is in compliance with environmental laws and is being monitored closely.

For Jay and Stephanie Seawell, the only downside to living in Chimney Hill is the traffic on Washington Road.

When the Seawells saw the yellow two-story house on Fieldstone Way three years ago, they knew they were home.

Mr. Seawell, 35, had just accepted a "dream job" as coach of the Augusta State University golf team, and the couple had made the rounds of Columbia County subdivisions looking for a house.

They chose Columbia County because they'd heard good things about its schools, a major emphasis for them because of daughter Brooke, then 4, and son Jackson, then 2.

Brooke, now 7, attends Greenbrier Elementary School, and Jackson is enrolled in kindergarten at First Baptist Church in Augusta. The Seawells have since had another daughter, Lauren, now 15 months. And their children have plenty of playmates in the neighborhood.

"Chimney Hill fit all our criteria," Mr. Seawell said. "Chimney Hill seemed to be family-oriented. When I pulled into the driveway, I felt like I was at home."

Mr. Seawell said he is "sort of neutral" on the Wal-Mart issue.

"I'm looking to get some cheap groceries," he said. "It was inevitable. A year or two from now we'll all be thankful that it's there."

Mr. Seawell said Wyatt Development Co. Inc. of Aiken owns the Sage Valley Golf Club in Aiken where his father, Jackie Seawell, is the golf pro.

One Columbia County planner tends to agree with Mr. Seawell.

Residents' fears that the Wal-Mart will cause Chimney Hill property values to drop are probably unfounded, said Tim Young, the senior planner with Columbia County Planning and Development.

"If you sell out of fear, you may not realize the full potential of your property," Mr. Young said. "But if you hold onto it, it may actually be more valuable."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.



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