After 31/2 years of dispute, Wal-Mart announced last week that it will not build a Supercenter along the Shenandoah River in the small Warren County town of Front Royal, Va.
In recent months, what was largely a local battle waged by the Town Council and a citizens group to preserve scenic open space and prevent traffic congestion grew in scope. The Warrenton County Board of Supervisors asked the world's largest retailer to reconsider its plans in February, and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) stepped in to negotiate with Wal-Mart.
The biggest catalyst for the change in plans was the Virginia Department of Transportation's project to rebuild one of two bridges that feed traffic into the 121-acre site. The state's timeline would have delayed building permits for Wal-Mart's construction until 2009.
"We'd like to bring convenience in shopping as soon as possible," said Rhoda Washington, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
She said that the retailer still intends to build in the rapidly developing county but has not determined a new location.
"This is the story of a community deciding what is best for itself," said Craig Laird, president of Save Our Gateway, the citizens group that formed to protest commercialization of the site. "This was never an anti-Wal-Mart campaign."
Laird said that many Front Royal residents would like to see more shopping outlets nearby but that they would prefer new construction in a developing commercial area north of town.
Wal-Mart initially expressed interest in the site in April 2002. A year later, the Town Council voted to rezone the land from residential to commercial to prepare for construction of a 184,000-square-foot, 24-hour Supercenter.
The citizens group sued the town and Wal-Mart, asking the court to throw out the decision on a technicality. In May 2004, residents elected a new mayor and three new council members who ran on the promise that they would fight to keep Wal-Mart off the contested site.
Now that Wal-Mart is looking elsewhere, Laird said his organization has changed its focus. The riverfront land remains zoned for commercial use. The organization is hoping to raise funds to purchase the mountain-view property so it can remain open space.
-- Michael Alison Chandler