Tighter Control of Big Stores' Size Sought; Alexandria Has Similar Provision

Eric M. Weiss. The Washington Post.  Washington, D.C.:  Jan 22, 2004.  pg. T.01

Copyright The Washington Post Company Jan 22, 2004

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) proposed tighter restrictions this week on so-called "big-box" retail stores that would give lawmakers greater discretion on approving their location and size.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted in April to initiate changes in the county's zoning code that would require any store with more than 80,000 square feet to receive board approval through a special use permit. Caddigan, seeing a fresh opportunity with a newly elected board, suggested during Tuesday's board meeting that the size limit be lowered, requiring any store larger than 20,000 square feet to apply for special permission, similar to provisions in Alexandria.

"It would give us more of a say-so," said Caddigan, who has criticized a 140,000-square-foot Wal-Mart being built in the Southbridge development. "It would be sad if Wal-Mart moved out of Southbridge and we're left with a big empty box."

Supervisors agreed to take up Caddigan's proposal next month, after a briefing by the county staff. In recent years, the board has been polarized by development issues, and Caddigan's proposal could test whether this board is indeed more willing to put restrictions on development.

Caddigan referred to a news article in Tuesday's Washington Post describing how retail competition and consolidation result in a large number of empty big-box stores. Across the country, 245 former Wal-Marts sit empty or partially empty, according to the company. Prince William County has four empty shells, formerly owned by Hechinger, Kmart, Ames and Lowe's. The 184,204-square-foot former Incredible Universe store in Woodbridge sat empty for four years.

In the Washington region, Alexandria requires any store bigger than 20,000 square feet to get special permission. Rockville prohibits stores larger than 65,000 square feet. So does Easton, Md., which also requires any store larger than 25,000 square feet to get special approval by the Town Council.

On top of its special provision consideration, Prince William may even go a step further. Officials are proposing a "poison pill" provision that would require retailers to tear down a store if it is left empty for a certain length of time. If the measure were to be approved this year, Prince William would be among the first to adopt such a hard line.

It is unclear whether the poison pill will ultimately be included in the zoning revisions, which are being reviewed by staff before they are sent on to the Planning Commission and then ultimately back to county supervisors.

A spokesman for the International Mass Retail Association, a trade group representing many big-box retailers, told The Post on Tuesday that requiring companies to take down empty buildings would add to the cost of business and wouldn't work in the case of such failed chains as Hechinger and Ames.

Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said that as the county moves to revitalize the Route 1 corridor, she hopes the retail areas can avoid what she described as past mistakes. "I don't want Route 1 to once again become a strip mall of Home Depots and Hechingers one after another," she said.

"I agree with Mrs. Caddigan that we need to do something," Barg said. "I just don't know what that is."

Last April, Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) was one of three supervisors who voted against the 80,000-square-foot trigger provision, calling it "socialism." The other two supervisors who voted with him, L. Ben Thompson and Edgar S. Wilbourn III, are no longer on the board.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Jenkins said he still opposes limits, worrying that they would send the wrong message to businesses considering moving to or expanding in Prince William.

Jenkins said there have been some successful rebirths of empty big-boxes. The Incredible Universe building in Woodbridge was converted into office space for General Dynamics. Another nearby Hechinger store was converted into a Best Buy.

When Swedish furniture giant Ikea replaced its outlet in Potomac Mills with a much bigger one, the old Ikea was converted into a multiplex cinema. And the Hechinger building next to the new Lowe's might find a new life as a Ford dealership.

He said the big-boxes produced revenues for the county, even when empty.

"They were eyesores, I'll grant you that," Jenkins said, "but their taxes were up to date."