Bella Vista residents had plenty to say about why they do not want to see a 6.22 acre tract of residential land rezoned commercial at Monday’s (June 11) public meeting.
It seems that “everyday low prices," 45 jobs and increased tax revenue from a proposed Walmart Neighborhood Market were not enough to sway the opinion of dozens of local residents who pleaded with the Bella Vista planning commission to vote against rezoning.
More than 300 people attended the meeting with one hour of allotted time for comment on the rezoning issue at hand.
For more than an hour, nearly two dozen residents spoke out about major traffic concerns that a proposed Walmart Neighborhood Market would bring to an already dangerous intersection - Oldham Drive and U.S. 71.
But the planning commission spent less than three minutes discussing the issue before unanimously approving the rezoning motion that sends the matter to the city council for a vote later this month.
The planning commission told the anxious crowd before the meeting began that the issue was not about Walmart and they would not be considering traffic issues before taking a vote on the rezoning request from residential to C-4, which is the largest commercial zone available.
The crowd rebuked those comments loudly saying Walmart had just met with the city council on Wednesday (June 6) to unveil their proposed plans to build in Bella Vista.
Walmart spokesman Daniel Morales told The City Wire last week that the retailer is anxious to work with the city officials and recently unveiled its preliminary plan which will require rezoning. Morales said the meeting with city officials last week was to discuss the traffic concerns raised by local citizens.
Debra Lewis, member of the planning commission, recused herself from the vote and discussion citing that her husband works for Walmart. She went on to say that public feedback is important to the process.
Christopher Sunseson, director for city’s planning and code enforcement, reminded the commission that it is only a recommending body and by itself does not approve or disapprove rezoning matters which are decided by the city council.
Sunseson said the city had received about 50 phone calls in the last three weeks regarding the rezoning request made by the property owner Betty Garcia and her legal council Stephen Giles.
Giles told the commission he not only represents Garcia’s interest but also does rezoning work for Walmart.
He reminded the commission that the city’s own land-use plan calls for the 6.22 acre residential tract to be commercial land and the C-4 rezoning request is consistent with the city’s goals of economic development.
Garcia said she bought the land in hopes of self-funding her retirement and it should be rezoned because there is not enough property in the village already zoned for commercial use.
James Heath lives in the immediate neighborhood near Oldham Drive that is subject to the rezoning bid. He told the commission that road is one of the most dangerous in the village, with two cars going off the road in last year’s snow storm. Heath said the only thing that saved their lives were the trees that buffered the fall. He shuddered to think what it would be like with semi-traffic en-route to a Walmart.
John Gilbert, another local resident, reminded the commission that five years ago several residents worked to get a red light at that busy intersection and were told “no” because it would be too close to the other two lights on either side.
Walmart is proposing a stop light at the intersection and said there is already preliminary approval from the state highway commission. The highway commission spokesman said last week before permanent approval is given, a traffic study would have to be done.
Giles told the commission Monday that a traffic study has been ordered.
Larry Whisenhant also lives in the area and said another traffic accident occurred at the intersection today.
“There were two ambulances, wrecked cars and people hurt there again today. I recommend not rezoning,” he said.
Lynn Law called the potential traffic issues a disaster and urged Walmart to help with the bypass and put a store out there. Patricia Butler said the Walmart presentation last week was inaccurate with respect to the buffer zone proposed from the C-4 commercial district to the nearest neighbors.
“We were told the buffer zone is 1,000 feet, but you see from this map it’s not even 400 feet to nearest house,” Butler said as she took measurements on a large map she got from Benton County real estate records.
Several residents would like to see Walmart put a store near the Highlands where there is already adequate land zoned commercial and less traffic congestion.
Not everyone who spoke was against the rezoning bid. Two residents supported it.
One of those, Larry Kelly, said the majority of the complaints were made out of the fear of change.
The crowd lashed back at Kelly shouting “No,” before they were quieted by chairman Jack Wingate. Kelly said the land is suitable for commercial and should be zoned as such.
Joel Jones, urged the commission to consider the traffic concerns at every point in their decision-making process. Jones is a Bella Vista resident and a justice of the peace in Benton County.
“Don’t limit yourselves and make a bad decision,” Jones said.
Harry Newby spoke on behalf of 50 residents saying he is not anti-Walmart but rezoning that 6.22 acre tract from residential to the busiest commercial designation is not consistent with city’s land use plan and he furnished them with a copy of the document as he did not have time to read it entirely in the 2 minutes he was allotted.
He said the city’s residential land use plan calls for zoning to protect neighborhoods from inappropriate influences through the design of streets that discourage through traffic and through the use of regulatory control.
“I have collected 2,200 signatures on our petition and there are more coming,” he said.
Following the quick vote, the vast majority of the departing audience shook their heads while vowing to vote out any council member who doesn’t adequately study the traffic impact from the proposed large scale development.