Duluth lifts moratorium on big-box retailers

DULUTH - A big-box moratorium was lifted in Duluth Monday, minutes after new regulations were passed that will determine how Wal-Mart and other large buildings will look in the city.

The large-scale building ordinance is effective immediately and the end of the moratorium means three such projects that have been stalled since it went into effect in July are now able to go forward.

One of those, a Wal-Mart project on about 31 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive, was the impetus behind the new rules. The city's Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to hear three variances on the 176,000-square-foot building project Wednesday, but City Attorney Lee Thompson said it was not clear how the new ordinance would effect the retailer's requests to change the roof pitch on the building, use a different building material and change the location of required landscaping.

Wal-Mart spokesman Glen Wilkins said the new ordinance would not change any of the company's requests.

"It doesn't affect us one bit," he said. "We applied for the variances with the large-scale ordinance in mind. It's still applicable. We can't do anything until we go through the variance process."

The ordinance, which passed unanimously, sets standards for building materials, roof lines, windows and parking for any project more than 75,000 square feet. It also regulates how large projects with smaller buildings are to be unified and requires plans such as a traffic study as part of a community impact statement.

Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter said she hopes other Gwinnett cities will follow suit with the code, which she thinks will have a great impact on the town.

"We did all the grunt work," she said. "I'm really glad to have it behind us. It's been a long journey."

Tom Wheeler, president of the Wheeler/Kolb Management Company, said the ordinance was much improved after more than two hours of revisions and the continuance of a public hearing that started last week. Wheeler said the ordinance is reasonable, balanced and fair.

Vince Michels, a homeowner who successfully challenged former Interim Planning Director Shelley Stiebling's decision to allow Wal-Mart to make changes without a variance, said he hopes the plan works, but isn't certain of its success.

"It's a leap of faith. We're going into uncharted waters," he said. "How it actually plays out remains to be seen."

Council members stressed that the document can be changed and amended as they learn more about how it will effect hospitals, hotels and other businesses. One of the three projects halted by the moratorium is an international hotel on North Berkeley Lake Road, Lasseter said.

The moratorium was scheduled to be lifted in January, and was part of controversy surrounding Wal-Mart's request to build a store in the area. The retailer was denied building permits in August because of the moratorium and two lawsuits have been filed against the city by landowner Jack Bandy, one with the intent of having the moratorium lifted.

A group, Smart Growth Gwinnett, formed in opposition to Wal-Mart's plans to build in the area. Marline Santiago-Cook, the group's spokeswoman, said Smart Growth Gwinnett's next step is to consider how the large-scale regulations might also apply to smaller projects.

"Really good things came out of these discussions," she said. "We're pleased."