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Wal-Mart appeals won by locals

DULUTH - A big-box retailer known for slashing prices instead got its construction plans slashed after a decision by Duluth's Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday.

The board voted unanimously to uphold three appeals by area residents who questioned the former planning director's decision allowing a proposed Wal-Mart to change the pitch of its roof and use a synthetic brick.

The decision instead will come before the Zoning Board of Appeals if Wal-Mart files a request.

"As I read it, I think she exceeded her authority," board member Jack Wynn said of former Interim Planning Director Shelley Stiebling's decision to allow the changes. "It's very clear and straightforward what it says."

Members of Smart Growth Gwinnett said they were very glad of the decision and planned to regroup to fight the requested variances.

"We'll figure out what our options are to challenge those variances," Smart Growth Gwinnett vice chair Len Boyer said. "We want to help the city of Duluth retain its small-town charm, its small-town standards."

Since June, thousands of residents have been fighting to keep the big-box retailer off about 30 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive. Wal-Mart is trying to build a 176,000-square-foot Supercenter on the land.

A lawyer for the company said Wal-Mart will pursue appeals to the decision, which could include an appeal to the county's Superior Court. The board also tabled to November an appeal the company brought against Duluth for rejecting a building application the company tried to file in August due to a big-box moratorium.

Additionally, landowner Jack Bandy sent an ante litem notice to the city, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleging that the moratorium singled out the Wal-Mart property. City attorney Lee Thompson denied Duluth had any liability in the $25 million claim.

Marline Santiago-Cook, a spokeswoman for Smart Growth Gwinnett, said before the meeting that the group's target isn't Wal-Mart, but any retailer that would build something contrary to Duluth's small-town feel.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, many wearing red T-shirts that read "Keep Small-Town Duluth small." They erupted in applause after the decision was announced, more than two and a half hours after the meeting began.

Cathy Ramadei, another Smart Growth Gwinnett member, said the group planned to use the momentum of its success to keep fighting.

"They have deep pockets, but we have the will," she said.