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There's houses here, and houses there, and they want to stick a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter right in the middle!

Knightdale group battles Wal-Mart rezoning 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAVE NEW FILMS
  • Photo courtesy of Brave New Films

Just a sneaking suspicion, but when lawyer Mike Brough, who represents the Knightdale group called CARE (Citizens Against Residential Encroachment), handed his maps to Superior Court Judge Henry Barnett last week while hastening to say, however, that "this case is not about the wisdom of the rezoning," what he was really saying was: "Judge, will you look at this gawd-awful rezoning? There's houses here, and houses there, and they want to stick a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter right in the middle! Which brings me to the legal technicalities you can use to stop them."

Let me see if I can describe this to you briefly. U.S. 64 goes east from Raleigh into Knightdale—you know that. It's strip malls all the way, makes me think I'm back in New Jersey, but that's an old story and not the point. Anyway, you get to Knightdale, booming Knightdale, and there's a strip mall with a Target on the left, and a strip mall with a Lowe's Foods on the right, and room for a bunch more strip malls on the same side as the Lowe's farther out.

But they can only be so big, because there's a residential subdivision behind the mall with the Lowe's, and another subdivision just yonder, and the land in between is zoned residential, too.

In other words, the strip along 64 is for strip malls, and the strip behind it is for houses.

Or it was.

Now comes Wakefield Associates, developers of Raleigh repute, and they'd like to put in a Raleigh-sized strip mall with a super-duper Wal-Mart—the 204,000-square-foot kind—and a bunch of other stores, too. And a huge parking lot, of course. But there's not enough land for it alongside 64.

Ah, but there is a farm, perpendicular to the highway, with the front half zoned strip mall—I'm sorry, "highway district"—and the back half residential.

Wakefield's solution? Rezone it all strip mall.

Which is what the Knightdale Town Council did, in its not-about-the-wisdom, by a 3-2 vote. And now you're asking, if you've ever been through one of these rezoning fights—and unfortunately, most people only learn this after it's too late to help in their own case—why didn't the adjacent property owners file a statutory protest petition? If they'd filed one, objecting to the rezoning, it would've required a two-thirds majority to pass, or 4-1 vote in this case.

But perhaps, if you've been through this yourself, you've already guessed the answer: Wakefield got its application in, and the official public hearing was conducted, while many of the houses in the adjacent subdivisions were still under construction.

Official hearing: April.

Rita Rakestraw, chair of Knightdale CARE, moves with her husband to the new house on Jumping Frog Drive: June.

Too late: You gotta get your statutory protest petition in before the case starts.

By the time the Rakestraws and other newbies in the Widewaters subdivision heard that "P.H." on the little sign next to 64 meant "public hearing," and the public hearing was about a Wal-Mart Supercenter sticking into their neighborhood like a sore middle finger, it was May. And as loud as they shouted from that point on, they could only convince two council members that they were getting screwed.

Think I'm exaggerating? The Wal-Mart needs a back way out, so Knightdale gave it one—onto little Sternwheel Way in Widewaters. How'd you like a Wal-Mart's traffic on your street?

Rakestraw's not a babe in the woods when it comes to politics. Her grandfather served in the state Senate (Pat Cooke, from Gastonia) and her mom, folk singer Anne Romaine, won awards for labor and civil rights activism. Rita herself was a Young Democrats' leader in her college days. But none of that prepared her for the one-sidedness of a local zoning fight.

"I had no idea they could be so sneaky about it," she says. "Basically, the Town Council went behind closed doors, and they threw out the entire land-use ordinance."

I don't know much about Knightdale's council, or Knightdale for that matter, beyond the obvious fact that with I-540 coming and the new U.S. 64 Bypass already finished, it's a small town where the citizens better get their act together before they're overrun by Raleigh-style sprawl.

And I also know that, per Brough, local councils here are given the greatest latitude by our courts when it comes to spot zoning and other Jersey-style methods for letting developers run roughshod over people.

In fact, the whole land-use process here is bass-ackwards, with "hearings" conducted before the public even knows there's a case, and when they do find out, oops, please don't interrupt while the property owners are telling us what they want to do.

Still, there's hope for CARE. According to Brough, Knightdale requires that proper notice be given before all public hearings, and it also requires that the town's Land Use Review Board have a hearing, not just the council. The board didn't have one, Brough told Barnett. Or, if it did—and there was one, sort of—it didn't notify folks about it in the legal way.

So that's one technicality Barnett could use, Brough says. Another is that Councilor Mike Chalk shouldn't have been allowed to vote for the rezoning because he's got a landscape and parking-lot maintenance business and does business with other Wakefield malls—including one he lined up within days of casting his "yes" vote.

Clyde Holt, the developer's lawyer of Raleigh repute who is now town attorney for Knightdale, ruled that Chalk did not have a conflict of interest, however.

Rakestraw is convinced that, given a chance, most adjacent homeowners will sign a protest petition, and the Council will back off the super center. "We're going to win this case," she says. "The town's telling everybody the Wal-Mart's a done deal. It isn't."

CARE's spent the $15,000 it raised on its lawsuit. To join, and help, see www.knightdalecare.com.

Know about an urban (or suburban) outrage? Contact Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.

  • There's houses here, and houses there, and they want to stick a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter right in the middle!

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