Zoning gets OK

Zoning gets OK by David Lias After a lengthy discussion, the Vermillion City Council gave approval of an ordinance that will change the zoning of a parcel of land from residential to light industrial.

Mayor Dan Christopherson and aldermen Kevin Annis and Mary Edelen voted against the zoning change.

Should 40 percent of nearby property owners petition against the aldermen's decision, it would be placed back on the agenda, and would have to receive two-thirds approval of the council.

Citizens also have the right to refer the issue to a public vote.

This land, annexed into the city approximately a year ago, is located east of Princeton Street between West Duke Street and West S.D. Highway 50.

It is known throughout the community as the former Anderson property.

It also has been the topic of conversation for weeks. It's been widely speculated that Wal-Mart is interested in building a retail center on the property.

That speculation was confirmed at Tuesday's city council meeting, and soon, the focus of the hearing wasn't on whether the zoning was proper.

Citizens used the hearing, instead, as an opportunity to voice their criticism of Wal-Mart, of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCCDC) and the Plain Talk.

Farrel Christensen, the city's zone compliance officer, told aldermen that the property automatically defaulted to an R-0 zoning district after it was annexed into the city.

"That is the most restrictive zoning classification in the city," he said, "and allows the least amount of uses. It gives us the opportunity and the obligation to rezone it in the proper manner."

Christensen explained that an R-3 residential "buffer zone" is included in the ordinance that would allow residential development north of Duke Street between existing residences and the proposed business district.

Vermillion businessman Larry Brady noted that the zoning recommendations are based, in part, on the city's comprehensive plan.

That plan, he said, states that it was developed to provide predictability about potential land uses and timing of development so both public and private sectors can make informed decisions about real estate and capital investment.

"How can private individuals make decisions if the city is now going to turn around and bring in about 100 more acres of business property, which will give us now four business districts in the city of Vermillion," he said.

Brady said the former Anderson property was purchased and priced for industrial development.

"And now, all of a sudden, it is being sold to a company that may bring a store that is at least at large as all of the rest of the retail property in the town of Vermillion," he said. "We're talking of a store of maybe a quarter of a million square feet."

Before the zoning hearing, Lisa Ketcham, executive director of the local chamber/development company, addressed the council in a "visitor's to be heard" forum.

"I wanted to take the opportunity tonight to update you and the general public on some things associated with the recent press release of Wal-Mart's intent to locate a retail center in Vermillion," she said.

The time granted to Ketcham is an opportunity included in each city council meeting for citizens to address aldermen about issues that are not on the city agenda.

The council usually takes no formal action after receiving such input; if it deems action is needed, it is scheduled on the agenda of a future meeting.

"The Vermillion Chamber and Development Company doesn't aggressively pursue retail; we believe that retail follows industry, so that has been our primary focus," she said.

Ketcham said the VCCDC also doesn't feel it is appropriate to decide how many or what type of retail businesses are appropriate in a free enterprise and entrepreuneral system.

"Our role is to work with all prospects interested in our community, and our objectives involve job creation, expanding the tax base, preventing leakage to other communities and creating opportunities."

Several months ago the VCCDC was contacted by a commercial developer regarding its client's interest in expanding to Vermillion.

"We were asked to provide information on available properties of 15-plus acres in and around the Vermillion area," Ketcham said, "particularly those properties along high traffic areas along the Highway 50 bypass."

The VCCDC provided names and contact information, and the company contacted owners directly regarding their willingness to sell, their price and

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other variables.

The company was also made aware of property available in the city's industrial park. "This property along the bypass has been intended for business development and has been aggresively marketed to various companies for over a year now as part of our economic development effort," Ketcham said.

After considering approximately 10 locations in the city, the company signed a formal agreement to purchase land in the business park pending feasibility studies.

"Since the desired property is owned by the city, the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company requested that the city transfer land to us pending the appropriate developer's agreement and the final decision by the company to locate here," she said.

That transfer was made May 3, and shortly after that, news that Wal-Mart intended to locate in Vermillion was announced in a press release.

"Wal-Mart will not be treated any differently than anyone else interested in our community," Ketcham said. "The price of the land for anyone in our business parks is $8,000 per acre. This price was determined a couple years ago, and was intended to cover the (land) costs, plus some costs for infrastructure development."

She said citizens have voiced concerns that downtown and Cherry Street businesses will move to the Highway 50 bypass area to be near Wal-Mart.

"We have received several inquiries regarding adjacent land, however, we have not acted on any of those," Ketcham said. "As with any business decision, we would consider the return on the investment."

She told the aldermen that the zoning issue coming up on their agenda "is not one of approving or disapproving Wal-

Mart coming to our community. That decision has been made by the company, regardless of their final location decision.

"Rather, your decision tonight will be to support or not support the rezoning of intended business property from the current default zoning of residential use," she said.

Ketcham said if Wal-Mart wasn't a variable, she believes there would be no concerns regarding the zoning change.

"Our growth plan over the past years has anticipated business development along the bypass," she said.

Brady told aldermen during the zoning hearing that the local development company was given 24 hours to decide whether to sell the property to Wal-Mart, or otherwise it would be going to Beresford.

Brady said statistically, for every two jobs that go into a Wal-Mart, three are lost.

Christensen tried to bring the focus of the hearing back onto the zoning issue.

"The comprehensive plan has been in place since 2000, and about two years ago we passed a zoning ordinance that removed one industrial zoning district and combined it with another," he said. "Two years ago, we made a decision that this area should be zoned to allow both light industry and retail."

Christensen added that, two years ago, city planners didn't care who owned the property or who eventually planned to locate there.

"We were looking at zoning; two years ago we felt it was appropriate and the planning commission passed that, and if it wasn't for some delays with the wellhead district and things like that, the city council likely would have passed it, too," he said.

Brady said part of the property being considered for rezoning is being sold at 18 cents per square foot. Commercial property is currently valued at $1.30 per square foot.

"I for one will be down at the county commissioners saying 'I want my property valued at 18 cents per square foot' ? because that's what it was for sale for in the open market," Brady said.

He urged the city council to delay action for 90 days to study the impact Wal-Mart will have on the community.

City Manager Jim Patrick said the land being sold is currently an alfalfa field. "It's not developed, it's doesn't have infrastructure to it, and they (the owners) will pay the assessment for the improvements and that will brings it up considerably closer to retail property that's already there."

Alderman Jack Powell noted that Brady, who co-chairs a committee on increasing the tax base in the city, was ecstatic at a June 7 meeting when it was learned that Wal-Mart was coming to town.

Powell recalled Brady stating that communities where Wal-Marts are established usually lose men's and women's clothing stores and other businesses that Vermillion currently doesn't have.

"When I heard Wal-Mart was maybe coming, all of the good stuff came out � this is what they can do for us ? but then I started to look at it," Brady replied. "Do you think for one minute Wal-Mart wants to come into the city of Vermillion for what they can do for us?"

Christensen, once again brought up the topic of the hearing � zoning.

"If we don't zone this property for them, it doesn't mean that Wal-Mart isn't coming to town," he said. "It's unfair to anybody to not zone a property specifically (as an act) against them. If Larry Brady wants to build a mini-mall but we already have one, should I deny his permit? Let's just concentrate on the zoning."

Mayor Dan Christopherson asked Ketcham what would happen if the council delayed its decision.

"We are under contract ? I'm not sure delaying the decision is going to change any opinion," she said. "I have other customers beyond Wal-Mart that I'm working with that aren't part of a residential use to begin with. Regardless, as I said earlier, Wal-Mart, in my selling business, has nothing to do with the use of that property. I would strongly encourage you to take action."

"People who bought their homes there didn't know that someday they might be having a big Wal-Mart outside," Peggy Cooper said. "I personally don't want to see Wal-Mart come to this town, because I think it is the devastation of a lot of our small businesses, and I just wonder how the Chamber of Commerce is going to help promote those businesses when they are helping to promote Wal-Mart."

A woman who didn't identify herself was critical of the VCCDC.

"I don't think this community is very well informed about anything that even the city council does," she said. "I feel personally that the chamber and the development company is doing a very poor job in representing and being fair to the people."

Ketcham said many details of business transactions, until they made public, are confidential in nature. "The details of those transactions, before they are decided on, can't necessarily be aired at a public forum. I apologize if the public may feel offended at that."

"I have to personally disagree that the chamber is working in the best interest of the community," the woman said. "The Plain Talk does not do a good job of representing what the city council is doing, or what the chamber is doing. There clearly was not enough research done in the chamber's decision."

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