Heard Off the Street: Citizens group raises alarm over Wal-Mart’s plans here

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Forget the complaints about how little Wal-Mart pays its workers and all the other reasons people have to despise the Bentonville, Ark., retailer.

Just remember Kilbuck.

That’s the advice of Dwight Ferguson. The Cranberry real estate attorney represents McCandless families who want to stop Wal-Mart’s plans for a 150,000-square-foot store on Blazier Drive. The township’s perfectly Republican town council approved the idea July 29 despite howls of protest from residents.

This is not Mr. Ferguson’s first trip to the ring with Wal-Mart. He previously represented a citizens group that opposed the retailer’s proposal for a store in Kilbuck. Those plans were approved by township and PennDOT officials despite warnings from Communities First!, the citizens group Mr. Ferguson represented.

Their protests were not the vituperative bleats of ill-informed citizens trying to prevent retail blight from disturbing domestic tranquility. They were based on the analysis of engineers that the group hired to examine Wal-Mart’s plans. The engineers concluded that unstable soil on the site made it prone to landslides.

“All the information we had was accessible to the Kilbuck engineers and attorneys. It wasn’t anything we uncovered,” said Mary Louise Fowkes, one of the group’s leaders.

Despite the warnings, Kilbuck and PennDOT blessed the project. Then came September 2006, when 300,000 cubic yards of dirt, rock and other debris cascaded down the site and onto Route 65 and Norfolk Southern’s railroad tracks. Wal-Mart persisted with its plans for about a year, then pulled the plug.

Mr. Ferguson is not raising alarm bells about landslides at the McCandless site, a flat, 23-acre parcel adjacent to McKnight Road and near North Park. It is occupied by a Trader Horn, a beer distributor, a movie theater, a closed fitness center and a Port Authority park-n-ride lot.

But the attorney believes citizens deserve more time to hire their own experts to review Wal-Mart’s plans. What happened in Kilbuck demonstrates the value of such a review.

The two public hearings that McCandless officials held before approving the project provided little time for citizens to study Wal-Mart’s massive application and thoughtfully question it, Mr. Ferguson said. He cited the retailer’s seven-binder traffic study as an example of the technical information overload citizens were up against.

Mr. Ferguson said another attorney interested in the proposal filed a right-to-know request before the July 29 meeting, asking McCandless to turn over Wal-Mart’s application as well as the township’s engineers response to it. McCandless exercised its right to a 30-day extension to respond, then went ahead and approved the proposal. The application still isn’t available. Mr. Ferguson plans to file another right-to-know request Monday.

“We haven’t even been permitted to see the application even though the township has already decided the matter,” he said. “How could that be anything but outrageous?”

His clients plan on appealing to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, asking the court for time to hire the same kind of expertise that citizens did when they questioned the Kilbuck Wal-Mart. About three dozen of them met Wednesday night to go over grounds for the appeal. Mr. Ferguson said the lawsuit must be filed within 30 calendar days of the July 29 vote. That means citing their concerns about plans for the site without ever seeing those plans.

“We literally have to do it blind,” Mr. Ferguson said.

The engineering and other technical aspects behind Wal-Mart’s proposal are too difficult for citizens to understand, according to Mrs. Fowkes.

“You really need somebody technical to take a look at that,” she said. “You get to a point where as citizens you can voice your opposition as much as you want, but if you don’t have the facts to back you up, you’re easily ignored.”

Bob Keir, another Communities First! member, agreed.

“You can’t fight them on economic grounds. You have to fight them on sound engineering principles,” said Mr. Keir, now a realtor in Sarasota, Fla.

Mr. Keir is familiar with the McCandless site. In September 2004, he was leaving the fitness club there and had to run back in to warn members of rapidly rising waters from Hurricane Ivan. Eventually, the park-n-ride lot was under 4 feet of water, destroying the cars of about 60 commuters who had parked there, including this reporter’s.

The lot has not flooded since. But there could be other issues with the site waiting to be extracted from Wal-Mart’s application. After all, real estate developers can get engineers, traffic consultants and other hired help to say anything. That’s why it makes sense for citizens to hire their own experts, according to Mr. Keir.

“That’s the only way to do it,” he said.

Len Boselovic: 412-263-1941 or lboselovic@post-gazette.com

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