Fairfax County has joined the ranks of localities across the nation that have restricted so-called big box retail stores. Under regulations approved Monday, May 21 most stores of greater than 80,000 square feet will now require approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Board members voted 6-2 along party lines in favor of the change, with two members abstaining.
Big box stores, such as Wal-Mart, Target or Home Depot, are springing up across the nation, and many localities are acting to restrict their presence through zoning regulations. Opponents of Big Box stores say that the stores act as a regional draw, creating disproportionately large traffic and noise impacts.
Also, large national corporations can afford slimmer profit margins than their local mom-and-pop competitors. These slimmer margins translate into lower prices often taking significant business away from small, locally owned businesses.
Big box boosters say that such competition is part of America’s market-based economy, and that businesses that can compete will survive. They also note that the lower prices at these stores are a boon for lower-income families.
UNDER FAIRFAX’S new policy, if a big box is part of one of Fairfax’s regional malls (Springfield, Fair Oaks and both Tysons Corner malls) it would still be permitted without additional review. Also, if the store site was part of a larger development and was approved in the context of that development, additional review would not be necessary, along with a few other exceptions.
The new regulation does not prevent constructing such establishments, but ensures that they are first reviewed by county planners and have a public hearing before both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
Bill Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, opposed the new regulations. The feared impacts, he said, don’t really become problematic until such stores are more than 100,000 square feet.
He also said that this extra regulatory burden, and the uncertainty that comes with it, could scare off some potential new businesses, particularly in shopping centers that need revitalization. "Over time, this will impact the quality of centers," Lecos said.
Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) agreed that such buildings might be useful in some centers, but he also noted they might not always be for the best. He supported that case-by-case review that the new ordinance will mandate.
"Depending on the design and the concept, a big box might be just what we don’t want," Connolly said.
Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) said that a Target store that was built in Burke was one of the most difficult cases she’s had in her 20 years on the board. "It really was all about something going in that was way different than what was expected," Bulova said. "It was a rather painful time."
In that case, she said, Target was a good corporate citizen and took steps to help the store fit in with the community, but she said that another retailer might not be so accommodating. The new regulations mean that the county will not have to rely on the largess of corporate America.
OTHERS ON THE Board were not persuaded. Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) said that Bulova’s situation was the only time a controversial case had occurred involving a big box. He added that few sites are left in the county where such a store could be built under current regulations.
"I’m not sure what problem we’re trying to solve," Frey said.
Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) also said that the laws were unnecessary. She sided with business interests that the regulations would create financing problems. She also championed the stores, saying that they allow for one-stop shopping which helps low-income families.
Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) said that the regulations are necessary. She pointed to an expanded Safeway in the Pan Am shopping center at Route 29 and Nutley Street. That store, which is well below the threshold for regulation, is a bother to some neighbors because with the expansion, they moved things like heating equipment and dumpsters closer to nearby houses.
The regulations will allow the county some leverage over the placement of such things in future cases.
"What we’re looking at simply is a way to be sure that we’re looking at that impact," Smyth said.
Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) asked the board to increase the threshold to 100,000 square feet, the number suggested by many in industry, before the approval would be needed, but her suggestion was rejected.
Against the regulations were Frey and McConnell. In favor were Connolly, Bulova, Smyth, Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), Cathy Hudgins (D-Reston) and Penny Gross (D-Mason). Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and DuBois abstained.
The board will revisit the regulations in 18 months (the Planning Commission had recommended three years), based on a suggestion by Connolly. However the review will be limited to the size threshold, which Connolly said he for one may want to increase. "The likelihood of down is nil," he said. "It will be up, not down."