La Plata rejects Wal-Mart proposal
66 percent vote against planned annexation
La Plata town residents voted against the annexation of 14.11 acres for the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wednesday’s referendum vote.
Of 1,317 who came out to vote, 866 voted against the annexation and 449 voted to approve, a 66 percent to 34 percent margin.
“The people of La Plata stood up to Goliath and said, ‘We don’t want the negative effects of a super Wal-Mart in our community,’” said Jim Jarboe, a member of annexation opposition group Save La Plata. “It’s a resounding victory.”
Jarboe, who lives just outside of the town’s limits but has two daughters and grandchildren who live in the town, said if all Wal-Mart Supercenters were put to a referendum vote, not many would be approved by residents.
“I felt the election was won years ago when volunteers from the town went door-to-door getting the people of the town to sign a petition for the referendum,” Jarboe said Thursday morning, adding that while collecting signatures, town residents “were educated on the effects of a super Wal-Mart on the community.”
In September 2011, the La Plata Town Council approved the annexation of the parcel at the corner of U.S. 301 and Rosewick Road owned by Johel Limited Partnership. The parcel currently contains the vacant Mitchell Supply building.
Johel Limited Partnership and Faison Capital Development petitioned to annex the 10-acre parcel and 4.11 acres of state highway right of way and combine the property with 18 acres that the town annexed in 2006.
However, residents halted construction by objecting to the fact that they did not get to decide. A petition of signatures was gathered to force a referendum on the project, but the developers questioned the validity of the signatures and the authority of the town manager to set conditions for considering the signatures.
In May 2012, a circuit judge ruled against a referendum vote by town residents. An appeal by the town brought the case to the Court of Appeals in April 2013. The appeals court overturned the circuit decision and sent the matter back to the town for the referendum.
On Wednesday, two lines stretched out the doors of La Plata Town Hall as residents waited to exercise their right to vote in the special election. The average wait time for voters was one hour. The polls were open from noon to 8 p.m.
The town has 5,208 registered voters. Ninety-nine absentee ballots were submitted for the special election vote.
“I’m thrilled no matter which way it goes that people have come out, and they’ve made a statement that they care about this town,” said Mary Beth Chandler, a member of Save La Plata.
Two members of Save La Plata and two members of a group in favor of the annexation, Moving La Plata Forward, remained inside the polling area throughout the day as observers to make sure votes were cast fairly in a battle that began in late 2011 when the town’s council voted 3-2 in favor of the annexation of the property.
Two members of each group also remained inside the polling area while ballots were counted from about 9:30 p.m. until midnight Wednesday. Counting resumed Thursday morning with an official result from the town in the afternoon.
“The large turnout of voters validated the council’s decision to appeal a lower court decision, if allowed to stand, would not have permitted the town of La Plata to hold a referendum vote,” Mayor Roy Hale said in an email statement Thursday. “The town prevailed in the appeal, and a special election was held.”
Hale said he believes the rejection of the annexation will not alter the town’s vision plan, which is “to promote the redevelopment of our immediate downtown area into a pedestrian-friendly walking downtown. This concept is not inconsistent with the results of this special election.”
“It was a real good turnout, and people will have their say,” Jarboe said before the polls closed at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Jarboe helped to gather resident signatures in late 2011 for the referendum vote.
Patti Gyorda has lived in the town for 43 years and said she voted against the annexation because she did not think a Wal-Mart Supercenter would add that many jobs to the town after other businesses would be forced to cut jobs.
“My thoughts were the congestion, and we don’t need the super Wal-Mart,” Gyorda said. “We have enough going on here.”
Sue Greer of Greer Law Firm, who represents Johel Limited Partnership, said Wednesday they were pleased “that the citizens had the opportunity to cast their vote, and it was nice to see democracy in action.”
Greer wrote in an email statement Thursday that the Mitchell Family thanked the town residents who “took the time to vote their conscience in yesterday’s special election.”
“We feel very blessed to have regained our property, and we are now free to explore all available options to sell or lease our prime 10-acre tract of county land fronting Crain Highway,” Greer wrote. “Let us take this opportunity to thank all of you for supporting the small businesses that we have brought to town since 1961. We will continue to encourage retail and commercial services enhancing La Plata’s Central Business District.”
The Mitchell family also expressed thanks to Wal-Mart “for maintaining such a positive presence while trying to bring a new shopping experience to their La Plata customers.”
“Wal-Mart has been serving customers in La Plata for almost 15 years, and our store will continue to bring residents convenient and affordable shopping options,” said Amanda Henneberg, Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “Our polling shows that 79 percent of La Plata residents have a favorable opinion of Wal-Mart, and 52 percent of residents shop at Wal-Mart on a weekly basis. We are evaluating the results and are exploring options going forward about how we can continue to best serve the needs of our customers in the area.”
Staff writer Gretchen Phillips contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org