Concerned residents of Bella Vista are not backing down from Walmart or the city council as they work frantically to get the required signatures on a petition for referendum in next 30 days.
Citizens for Responsible Development want local residents to have their say regarding the recent rezoning of 6.4 acres along Oldham Drive in Bella Vista. The group says council members rubber stamped the large scale commercial rezoning request last month with no regard for property values and traffic safety of local residents.
Tony Licauzi, a local resident who is heading up the citizens’ group, held a press conference Wednesday morning (July 11) across the road from the proposed site of the 40,000-square-foot Walmart Neighborhood market and four-pump gas station.
Wal-Mart has a pending contract to purchase the parcel from property owner Betty Garcia, who is also a real estate agent. That deal hinged on the city council rezoning 6.4 acres of residential land now used as a buffer between residential neighborhoods and U.S. 71, the major transportation artery through town. Wal-Mart spokesman Daniel Morales confirmed Wednesday the real estate sale is still pending.
“Following the 5-1 city council vote to rezone Mrs. Garcia’s property, we continue our due diligence on the site in the hopes of bringing a new Walmart Neighborhood Market to Bella Vista. We think our store fits within the city’s existing land use plan, will help generate much needed revenue and most of all, serve as a solution for residents who want more affordable grocery options close to where they live and work,” Morales said.
The citizens have said repeatedly the issue is not that Bella Vista doesn’t want a Walmart, but they don’t think the proposed site is the best location and they believe the city council has not taken their concerns to heart.
“In their first attempt at adding new major development, the planning commission and city council ignored our current (Land Use Plan) while professing to be in accordance with the official document. I found 16 blatant violations on this project alone,” Licauzi said. “In nearly 50 years of active city planning around the Dallas metroplex I have never witnessed what happened here with our council voting in a vacuum offering citizens no chance to ask questions about the impact of this large project.”
Howard Slinkard, an attorney in Rogers, is providing council to the group regarding their petition for referendum. Slinkard said state law allows citizens the right to petition for referendum and this group appears to be following the protocol required.
Bella Vista City Clerk Jane Wilms said she was notified and public notice was made July 4 in the Benton County Daily Record.
“The group has 30 days to get the required number of signatures. If that happens, the city council will have to decide whether to call a special election or put the issue on the Nov. 6 ballot for the general election,” Wilms said.
City attorney Bryan Vernetti did not return a phone message or respond to an email send Wednesday morning following the press conference, nor did Bella Vista Mayor Frank Anderson.
Anderson said at the June 26 meeting he was in support of the rezoning.
While the group hopes to secure as many as 5,000 signatures they only need to get 1,322 from registered voters, which is 15% of the total votes cast in the last mayoral election.
Harry Newby, another local resident who worked as a city attorney in Minnesota before retiring to Bella Vista, collected more than 2,700 signatures on a petition he circulated ahead of the June council meeting. He presented the signatures to the council, but they were not considered ahead the vote that was taken the same night as the public hearing.
“This is not how the Citizens for Responsible Development feel that our chosen representatives should win the hearts and minds of the constituents. The city should have an updated (Land Use Plan) that encompasses the vision and mission of the citizens before spot-zoning is applied,” Licauzi said.
Slinkard said if the referendum is successful and gets on the ballot, voters could overturn the rezoning of the said property, which is commonly known as 5 Oldham Drive (Parcel #16-79399-003). This parcel was recently rezoned from R-1 (single family) to C-4 (shopping center district).
Just two years ago the city council voted down a Kum & Go convenience store and gas station near the proposed Walmart site because of traffic concerns at Riordan Road, which already has a red light. If the rezoning stands and Walmart moves ahead with its proposed store, company officials have proposed a stop light at the intersection of Oldham Drive and U.S. 71.
Steven Giles, attorney for Garcia and Walmart ,said at the June 26 meeting a traffic study is being conducted. The state highway commission says it would be glad to conduct a study if contacted by either Walmart of the city council.
Morales said, “As part of our due diligence we are working with the appropriate authorities to bring a traffic signal to the intersection.”
He said the company has not released a time frame for expected construction or a store opening date as they are still in the due diligence phase and the property sale is still pending.
Walmart expects the proposed neighborhood market would bring 85 jobs to town as the retail center would be open 24 hours a day.
Daniel Benson, another local resident, said 85 jobs sounds good until you realize they come at the expense of other jobs lost when small businesses fold up after Walmart comes to town.
“I have lived through this once in Illinois. I watched five businesses close after Walmart moved in. After a while they built a supercenter next store to their original store and they promised to make sure the old store stayed leased, but five years later it was still a vacant eye sore in town,” Benson said as he left the press conference.
Licauzi said the citizen’s group will not stand by and be steam rolled by promises of additional tax revenue at the expense of property owners near ground zero, the overall safety of residents and the livelihood other local businesses.