Whether one considers them eyesores or engines of economic development, "big box" stores have become prominent in the county's retail landscape. Soon, Prince William supervisors will decide whether bigger is necessarily better.
Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan) said she will propose new rules that would cap the size of retail stores allowed in the county at 60,000 square feet and allow stores over 25,000 square feet only by special permission. Griggs also wants store developers to provide exit strategies to ensure they don't leave an empty shell and acres of asphalt behind when the store owners decide to close.
"They are giant billboards for our communities and come with enough lighting to allow an alien spaceship to land," Griggs said. "What do you do with a space that size when they move on? What we're saying to them is that they need to be compatible with their community."
Griggs said she has studied similar restrictions in North Carolina and Maryland.
There are several empty superstores in the county, Griggs said, including the 97,547-square-foot former Hechinger on Minnieville Road and the 56,301-square-foot former SuperFresh down the street. Soon, Lowe's will leave its 105,092-square-foot home improvement store on the Prince William Parkway as it moves to a 176,605-square-foot store on Smoketown Road.
Supervisors are expected to vote on whether to send Griggs's proposed zoning text amendment for staff and planning commission consideration. Any final proposal would have to again be voted on by supervisors. As submitted, Griggs's proposal is likely to incur opposition from business groups and some of her colleagues on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, a majority of whom generally line up in favor of growth.
Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), who generally takes the opposite view on growth issues from Griggs, said putting "cookie cutter" restrictions on businesses could result in unintended consequences.
"We would have companies that would definitely not consider Prince William County," Wilbourn said. "It would eliminate Best Buy, Costco, the Giant out in Gainesville, Hecht's and on and on. It takes a certain square footage to get a certain volume and profit. It's a lot of things that go into this. And it would definitely impact the revenue of the county and economic development."
Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large) said the proposal was worth studying because the large stores create such a significant impact, economically and aesthetically.
"They're obviously an economic asset, but when they go bad, we're left with both blight problems and an economic black hole," he said.
In some cases, the county has been able to turn lemons into lemonade, turning the site of a closed Hechinger into a commuter parking lot and converting the empty 156,263-square-foot former Incredible Universe store on Prince William Parkway into a office for General Dynamics, he said.
Connaughton said that the fates of stores often have little to do with local conditions, noting the announcement by Kmart Tuesday that it will close an additional 326 stores.
"When you get into big boxes, you get into national chains and national economics," Connaughton said. "It has nothing to do with anything in the county."