February 25, 2006 in Idaho

Waiting on Wal-Mart

By The Spokesman-Review
 

After Wal-Mart breezed into Post Falls to much fanfare from residents and city officials, the world’s largest retailer is having a much tougher time penetrating Hayden.

For four years the company has tried to get approval for a supercenter at the corner of state Highway 95 and Honeysuckle Avenue.

The city is waiting for Wal-Mart to provide a revised site plan and building permit application for the store.

Hayden Planner Lisa Key said the only thing that’s changed in the past two years is that Wal-Mart took ownership of the land. Yet she said the company has been talking with city engineers about the need to relocate a sewer lift station on the property in order to realign the intersection of Highway 95 and Honeysuckle.

“The ball’s in their court,” Key said. “What I want to make super clear is that we just really don’t know what they are going to do at this point.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karianne Fallow said she can’t comment on the retailer’s intentions other than it still plans to build a 195,000-square-foot superstore on the property and is in touch with the city.

“We are looking forward to serving the customers of the Hayden area,” Fallow said, adding that she can’t provide a time line for when more details will be available.

News that Wal-Mart officially took ownership of the land earlier this month rekindled concerns about traffic – worries that have been dormant since 2004 when negotiations between the city and the world’s largest retailer broke down.

In February 2004, Wal-Mart officials argued it had complied with all of Hayden’s laws and that the city was going overboard to keep it from coming to town. At the time, Wal-Mart said it was prepared to sue.

The Hayden City Council recently asked staff to review studies that both Wal-Mart and the city did to estimate the increase in traffic the store would have on Honeysuckle Avenue and Highway 95 and determine whether they are still accurate or if they need updating. Key said staff might have an answer by the March 14 council meeting.

The request came after Steve Meyer, a local developer who co-owns the Prairie Center Shopping Center and sits on Hayden’s newly created Urban Renewal District, told the council that with Kootenai County’s rapid growth, it’s likely the traffic studies are obsolete. Meyer said it’s the responsibility of the city to require Wal-Mart to make improvements to the intersection so it can adequately handle traffic in the decade after the store opens. He added that it’s a classic conflict between the rights of a private developer and the role they have in protecting the public interest.

The council also got a similar letter from residents John and Helen Centa, who have opposed Wal-Mart from when the store first proposed coming to Hayden in 2002. Centa, Meyer’s father-in-law, is a member of the opposition group Hayden First that organized hundreds of people to rally against the plan.

“The new study will include the explosive traffic increases that have occurred in the last two years,” Centa wrote in the Feb. 11 letter.

Fallow said she is unsure how Wal-Mart will respond to requests for an updated traffic study.

“Obviously we did a traffic study and we will consider how we need to move forward,” she said.

When Wal-Mart opened its Post Falls store in 2002, traffic on Mullan Avenue doubled to 8,084 vehicles a day, said Post Falls senior engineer technician Ryan Brodwater. That increase is attributed to Wal-Mart shoppers in addition to other new businesses and housing developments in the area.

Key said that’s why Hayden needs to have a good understanding of the traffic needs in Hayden so it can ensure that Wal-Mart pays for adequate improvements.

“There’s a ton of stuff that needs to be addressed,” she said.

Initially Wal-Mart wanted to build a larger store on the 40 acres of land. Part of the property was zoned to allow commercial businesses while the other acreage was reserved for multifamily housing, such as apartments.

Wal-Mart asked the city to amend its comprehensive plan, the foundation of all land-use decision, to allow commercial business on the property zoned for multifamily housing. After hundreds of people opposed the change, the Hayden Planning and Zoning Commission recommended in December 2002 that the City Council reject the proposal.

In response, Wal-Mart opted to build a smaller store on the land that already allows commercial business, now partially occupied by an espresso and fruit stand. Hayden denied the building permit saying that the company needed to make changes to the footprint of its building to meet codes and that a new site plan was needed. That’s when Wal-Mart threatened the lawsuit that never transpired.

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