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Building of Wal-Mart seems more likely

A long-planned Wal-Mart store in Lancaster could see a spring groundbreaking after being on hold for seven years because of legal challenges.

Bella Vista Group, the Bowmansville developer that has been trying to build a Wal-Mart at William Street and Transit Road since 1999, has sold the embattled parcel to Wal-Mart Stores East LP for $660,155.

Lancaster Supervisor Robert Giza said that with the property in Wal-Mart's hands, the project is free of the tangle of lawsuits that had prevented it from moving forward.

"It's my understanding that the lawsuits were all against Bella Vista and the federal government [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]," Giza said last week. "Now that it's Wal-Mart's land, there's nothing to stop them. They have all the necessary approvals from us."

The Lancaster official said he has been told Wal-Mart will break ground this spring and will open the store before Christmas. Wal-Mart did not return phone calls regarding the land purchase or its plans.

Bella Vista on Thursday confirmed its sale of 24 acres to Wal-Mart, a deal that includes the land where it previously developed two restaurants, a bank and a gas station. The local developer has retained 8.5 acres for storm water retention and future development opportunities.

Giza said action taken by the Town Board late last year paved the way for Wal-Mart to directly take over the retail development without needing to attain fresh approvals.

"We OK'd transfer of all the covenants we'd approved for Bella Vista to any future owner, and from what I understand, Wal-Mart is that new owner," Giza said. "As long as they stay within the original footprints we approved, they are good to go."

The town had previously OK'd two "big box" retail buildings for the site where Wal-Mart is expected to set up shop in the pre-approved 150,327-square-foot building. It is not known what retailer will occupy the adjacent 130,000-square-foot building site.

The large-scale retail project, dubbed Gateway Plaza by Bella Vista, has been controversial from its inception. Even before Wal-Mart was confirmed as its anchor, a group called Citizens Against Retail Sprawl, or CARS, headed to court to block the development.

Lee Chowaniec, vice president of CARS, said he had heard rumors that Wal-Mart was buying the land.

"We'd heard something was going on, and we thought Wal-Mart was the buyer, but we haven't been able to prove it," Chowaniec said.

He would not say whether the citizens group plans new action to prevent the project from moving forward.

Over the years, CARS filed roughly a dozen state court lawsuits, some resulting in modifications in Bella Vista's plans, others rebuffed by the courts. David J. Seeger, the group's attorney, said a 2004 federal suit, which seeks to overturn a permit issued by the Corps of Engineers to fill in 7.5 acres of wetlands, could still stop Wal-Mart in its tracks.

"If my client wins the federal suit, and I believe they will, Wal-Mart won't be able to fill in the wetlands, and they can't build that store on the site without the fill," Seeger said.

He expects the case to be heard by U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin in the next few months.


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