In northwest Wichita, the battle of Sam’s Club has officially begun.
About 100 residents packed a meeting room at the Sedgwick County Extension office on Thursday evening to protest plans to locate the big-box retailer at the northeast corner of 29th Street North and Maize Road.
The plan calls for construction of a 136,000-square-foot store that will employ about 150 workers, said Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Walmart. The store would be Wichita’s third Sam’s Club, the membership-store division of Walmart Stores, the nation’s largest retail shopping chain.
City Council member Jeff Longwell led the neighborhood meeting and cautioned the residents against uncompromising opposition to the store.
He attempted to steer discussion toward restrictions and conditions that could be put on the development to reduce the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
“In my opinion, I don’t think you’ll see single-family (residential zoning) all the way up to that corner,” Longwell said.
That wasn’t what most of the residents wanted to hear.
Jim Tidwell said he was disturbed that the discussion seemed to be about how to make the project possible while the neighbors find the entire concept unacceptable. He said he wanted to know “what additional things we might do to make this not fly.”
“I think what we want to do is fight this tooth and nail … no compromise,” added neighbor Brian Wilhite.
The residents, mostly from the upscale Fox Ridge neighborhood behind the proposed store site, raised a host of issues ranging from noise to shopping traffic to truck deliveries to flood control.
“I think we’re all concerned about the aesthetics and safety of our neighborhood,” said resident David Piper.
Longwell suggested that the residents will see their best success if they focus their efforts on development restrictions – such as buffer zones, landscaping, berms, sound walls and water-retention basins – to lessen the project’s impact on their neighborhood.
Both he and Bill Longnecker, the planner assigned to the case, said residents will have an uphill battle at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission if their only case is that the property shouldn’t be developed for commercial use – given that numerous big-box stores including Menards, Lowe’s, Walmart and Target are already located immediately north and south of the area.
“That’s what makes this a tough one for your neighborhood because you’ve already got a pattern of big boxes,” Longnecker said.
But neighbor Rick Hladik questioned why planners and the city couldn’t simply reject the developers’ request to change the zoning from residential to commercial, which they need to do to complete the project.
If it’s going to be changed to accommodate any request a developer makes, “What’s the purpose of zoning?” Hladik asked.
Longwell said it’s the residents’ decision if that’s where they want to make their stand, although he’d advise against it.
“If you don’t want to take my advice, I don’t care,” he said.
Wertz said Walmart Stores stands ready to meet whatever requirements the city might put on the site.
“We would typically engage ourselves with the neighbors (to) alleviate the impact on the neighborhood and people living nearby,” he said. “It’s early in the process.”
Landscaping, sound walls and loading docks below grade are some of the strategies the company has used to lessen neighborhood impacts in other communities, he said.
But when such discussions might take place is an open question.
The project is on a fast track, scheduled to go before the District Advisory Board on Sept. 10, followed by a hearing and decision by the Planning Commission on Sept. 20.
The City Council will then review the commission’s decision at an unspecified date.
After the commission meeting, residents will have the chance to appeal if they can obtain, within two weeks, signatures of property owners representing 20 percent of a 200-foot circle around the project, Longnecker said. If that happens, the council would need a three-fourths majority vote for the project to go forward, he said.
The project developers could also appeal if the decision goes against them, he said.