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Vote on Wal-Mart requests delayed
Duluth to review new ordinance before making decision

DULUTH - Rolling back a decision until after the new year, members of Duluth's Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday tabled three requests by Wal-Mart officials that would let the retailer change the look of a proposed new building.

Citing a new ordinance that governs large-scale development in the city, board member Jack Wynn said the group had not had a chance to review the rules, which Duluth's city council passed Monday.

In just four minutes, the board voted to delay a decision on three variance requests until Jan. 23, when members have had the opportunity to see the ordinance.

Glen Wilkins, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said he did not think the new large-scale rules would alter Wal-Mart's plans to request changes to the roof pitch of the building, the building material and the location of required landscaping.

"Nothing's changed for us," he said. "We have a vested right."

The Wal-Mart squabbles have been ongoing since this summer, when the retailer first filed variance requests for a supercenter on about 31 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive.

Residents started a group, Smart Growth Gwinnett, and claimed that the 176,000-square-foot building was too large for the area. In response to their complaints and an online petition, Duluth halted all large-scale development with a moratorium on projects greater than 75,000 square feet while city council members drafted a new ordinance. That moratorium was lifted Monday.

Since the moratorium was lifted, no large-scale projects have been applied for. The filing deadline is mid-January.

Two lawsuits have been filed in relation to the case, both by landowner Jack Bandy. A man who identified himself by the same last name, and who residents said was Bandy's son, attended the board's meeting but declined to comment on the tabling.

While Wilkins said he thinks the variance application should be handled under the old regulations, Duluth Planning Director Clifford Cross said the city's legal department had advised him that Wal-Mart's requests would fall under the new ordinance.

Senior planner Chris Collins said that is because variance requests were unaffected by the moratorium.

Wal-Mart officials first applied for variances in the spring, then withdrew their requests when then-interim Planning Director Shelley Stiebling let the company's plans go forward without variances. The Zoning Board of Appeals overturned Stiebling's decision in October, requiring the company to apply again for permission to make changes.

The moratorium kept the retailer from receiving a land-disturbance permit to carry on with other aspects of the development.

Cross said he thought Zoning Board of Appeals members acted appropriately by delaying the vote.

"The board wanted to take the opportunity to make sure they were familiar with the ordinance before making a decision," he said. "I think it's a responsible approach."

Marline Santiago-Cook, Smart Growth Gwinnett's spokeswoman, said she was pleased by the tabling, but she does not think it will have any affect on the long-term solution.

"Our chance remains the same," she said of keeping Wal-Mart out of the community. "Part of me's really glad that they tabled it. Part of me wishes there were no more meetings."