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Oriental Board Approves Water For Walmart
Racism Accusation Leveled At Opponents
October 3, 2013

riental’s Town Board voted Tuesday night to allow a Walmart store, proposed for outside the town limits, to tap in to Oriental’s water system if Walmart agreed to be annexed in to the town after its building is completed.

Oriental’s Town Board on Tuesday night. From left, Commissioners Michelle Bessette, Warren Johnson, Mayor Bill Sage, Commissioners Barbara Venturi and Larry Summers. All but Warren Johnson are seeking re-election on November 5. Absent from the dais was Commissioner Sherrill Styron.

That timing would mean the proposed 12,000 square foot structure wouldn’t have to comply with Oriental’s Growth Management Ordinance which limits commercial building size to 8,000 square feet.

Nonetheless, at least one Commissioner suggested that demanding annexation after the fact might be asking too much of Walmart. Commissioners Barbara Venturi and Larry Summers also delivered rebukes to the Walmart opponents, some of whom were in the audience, who wanted the Town to use the water as a negotiating chip.

Race Card Played, Petitioners Challenged

Commissioner Larry Summers, gesturing to the audience and speaking loudly, suggested racism was at play and that denying Oriental’s water to the world’s largest retailer “harkens back to the Jim Crow days the South was known for.”

OTB larry summers racist walmart oriental
Commissioner Larry Summers at right, and at left, Commissioner Barbara Venturi, who both criticized the opposition to Walmart. Summers suggested it was racist to deny town water to Walmart. Venturi suggested 121 residents signing a petition saying they did not welcome Walmart near Oriental were not enough to persuade the Board.

Commissioner Barbara Venturi challenged the value of a recent petition whose signers said they did “not welcome Walmart to Oriental.” By her count, 120 of the signers were residents of town, about 15% of the population. Not enough, she suggested, for a “basis on which the board should act.”

Oriental Water’s Lower Price Not Considered

Oriental’s water service ordinance says that requests from out of town property owners for water service have to go to the Town Board for review. That’s what put the item on Tuesday’s agenda. Walmart had asked the Town for water service.

Town water pipes run up and down Hwy 55, extending to Straight Road and down White Farm Road to the eastern side of Oriental. County water pipes stop at Straight Road.

Chris Fulcher walmart oriental Lot Hwy 55
The lot on Hwy 55/Broad Street Extension now owned by Chris Fulcher where Walmart plans a store just outside of Oriental. Since it’s not in town it would not have to pay town property taxes nor abide by the town’s criteria for new buildings. It can ask the Town for water service, and the Town Board has said yes.

For Walmart, Oriental’s water service would represent a far cheaper option than the county water system. Al Gerard of the Pamlico County Water Department says it would cost Walmart at least $100,000 to extend a 6” water pipe from its Hiway 55 lot to the nearest county water main at Straight Road. (Walmart would then have to deed that over to the County.) The County also charges an impact and tap on fee of $12,000, more than twice what Oriental does. And the monthly water bill with the County would be $18 more.

Oriental Town Board’s meeting Tuesday night.

Those comparative figures were not before the Board in its discussion Tuesday night. At an agenda meeting on September 27, Interim Town Manager told the Board Walmart would have to pay $25,000 for a 2” pipe from Straight Road. Though it was not brought up Tuesday night, a 2” pipe width may not be feasible given the distance it has to run. A 6” pipe would be necessary, says Al Gerard.

Those opposed to the Walmart just outside Oriental have latched on to the water issue. They oppose the Walmart on the grounds it would hurt the in-town businesses who are the Board’s constituents, and they called on the Board to use the water as leverage.


Speakers: Don’t Give Water For Nothing

During the Public Comment session at the beginning of the meeting, Roger Bullis told the Board that until now, he’d not been vocal on the Walmart issue. What prompted him to speak Tuesday night was the idea of letting Walmart get water without even demanding it be annexed in to Oriental.

walmart oriental
Attendees at Tuesday night’s meeting, most of whom were there for the Walmart water discussion. And, a rare sighting at Oriental Town Board meetings, a TV news camera.

Bullis noted that it was businesses and residents in town who have paid property taxes for services – such as police and water – that were being provided to businesses and residences beyond the Town limits. The Town, he said, was sending the wrong message: “come bring your business next to Oriental. Get police and water and don’t pay taxes like those dummies who are in town.”

By not linking water service to annexation, Bullis said, ”I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to be annexed.”

Bob Miller told the Commissioners that “you don’t understand the depth of feeling” in town against the store, and that providing water with no strings attached was a “big mistake.”

”Annexation should come first,” Miller said, “not water.” He said the Board was enabling Walmart to do an end run around Oriental’s Growth Management Ordinance, which sets criteria for construction “All you have to do to get around it is build outside of town and then ask for services,” Miller said, noting that the Walmart corporation has typically built “where the least restrictions apply.“

walmart oriental
Oriental resident and former Planning Board chairman, Bob Miller.

Just outside Oriental, Miller said, Walmart can build a 12,000 square foot building – larger than Oriental’s GMO allows, can cover more land with asphalt or concrete than the Town’s impervious surface rules permit, and can put up a sign that would be in violation of the Town’s sign ordinance (an 80+ square foot sign is planned for the building alone – more than twice the 32 square feet that Oriental’s in-town businesses are allowed.) Walmart can do all that outside the Town limits, Miller said, “and then ask us for water.”

Miller suggested that since it would be more expensive for Walmart to tap in to the County’s water system, the Town was in a position to play a smarter poker hand. “‘Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,’” Miller said. “Have they offered to give us anything in return?” Miller got no answer then – as per the Mayor’s prohibition on dialogue between Board and public — nor later during the Board’s discussion.

Commissioner Charges “Racial Thing”

More than an hour in to the meeting, the Board got to 11th item on the agenda, “Water Service, Walmart” at which none of the concerns raised by the speakers were addressed. Four minutes in, Commissioner Summers, said, “I make a motion that we approve giving water to Walmart.”

Commissioner Summers then said he had something to say and directed his remarks not to fellow Board members but to the audience. At times bellowing, Summers cited poverty statistics, among them, that 40 people in Oriental lived below the poverty line.

He then sought to equate the poverty issue with race.

Summers said he belonged to a couple of groups that were, by his description, “primarily black organizations, ” one of them military. He implied that among those African-Americans he talked to, support for Walmart ran high. “What those folks tell me,” Summers said, his voice rising further, is “one hundred jobs, one hundred jobs, one hundred jobs.”

“There are 473 who are unemployed in this town.” Summers called out. “Would a hundred jobs help them? It doggone certainly will.”

(The 473 figure would put Oriental’s jobless rate in excess of 50%. The 100 jobs may refer to a combination of the 20 jobs Walmart has said the Oriental store would have – an unknown amount being full time — and the jobs at the bigger Walmart Superstore planned for Grantsboro. By comparison, the Town-n-Country employs 17 people.)

OTB Larry Summers Racist walmart oriental
Commissioner Larry Summers speaking at Tuesday’s Oriental Town Board meeting where he said it would be like Jim Crow racism to deny water to Walmart. The giant retailer is planning a store just outside Town limits. Opponents say it will harm in town businesses and that the Board should take that in to account before providing water. At left are Mayor Bill Sage, and Commissioner Barbara Venturi.

“This is also a racial thing,” Summers called out to the audience where his comment brought looks of surprise, and visible anger at the accusation.

Summers continued, citing cheaper cans of beans at Walmart for those under the poverty line as part of the argument that it would be racist to not provide Oriental town water to Walmart.

In his second direct mention of race, Summers said, “I think us making a moral decision that we don’t like Walmart is a grievous mistake and harkens back to the Jim Crow days the South was known for,” Summers stated, “and I don’t think we need to do that.”

Click here to hear Commissioner Summers’ comments Tuesday night. They are unedited.

The public was given no opportunity to respond to the Commissioner’s accusations of racism.


How Many Residents Does It Take

Next to speak was Commissioner Barbara Venturi, who also rebuked Walmart opponents, not on racial matters but for their petition drive. She said she’d gone through the hundreds of signatures presented at recent meetings by multiple people and found duplications and signatures from Sacramento,CA and Raleigh. She said she went thru the petitions with colored markers and that 121 – 124 (she said she got two different numbers on separate counts) of them resided within the Town limits.

walmart oriental venturi
Commissioner Barbara Venturi.

The petition cited concern for local businesses if Walmart opened outside of town, and stated that the signers did “not welcome Walmart in or near to Oriental.” Venturi argued that the petition “doesn’t actually ask the town or the county to do anything.”

Further, Venturi indicated that she was not impressed that 121 residents of the town of 900 had signed the petition. “When 15% …of the community really, really wants something,” Venturi asked, “does that mean that that is the basis on which the board should act?“

A moment earlier Venturi had asked volunteer fire fighter Gary Ramsey, sitting in the audience, how many people lived in the fire district that included Oriental, as a way of showing that there was even less opposition in the wider area. Ramsey lives outside Oriental but opposes the Walmart. When Venturi claimed that only 15% in Oriental were opposed, Ramsey spoke out, breaking the tight rein the Mayor holds on public input during Board discussions.

walmart oriental
The public, seated on the front half of the room and the Board at its dais at the back at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“You’re assuming the other 85% would say yes” to Walmart, Ramsey said, “They’ve not spoken.”

From the back of the room, Roger Bullis called out, “121 have spoken, and you’re ignoring them?”

Mayor Sage rapped his gavel as Bullis continued to address Venturi, “You’re not speaking on the motion. The motion is about water.”

Venturi said that if the town had been able to get ETJ, or Extra Territorial Jurisdiction between Silverbrook Road and Hwy 55 as it tried to half a decade ago, the Town’s criteria on buildings would have applied “we’d be in a very different position today.”

She said she thought that the Town should pass a law that any future out of town development seeking town water should be annexed first. But Venturi was adamant that she didn’t think Oriental should demand that of Walmart. She said she was afraid that if so pushed, Walmart would opt instead to build a pipeline to County water.

walmart oriental
Commissioner Michelle Bessette’s one comment during the discussion was to ask Commissioner Venturi, “Is it not true that if we deny Walmart the water, we have lost the potential for water (customers) all the way out to Straight Road?” Venturi agreed with that view.

That would mean, Venturi said, that if county water extended from Straight Road to the Walmart store, other future development along Hwy 55 could opt for county water and not take the Town water, and therefore would see no reason to be annexed.

No other board member spoke to Venturi’s theory, nor noted that the County water would cost Walmart more. Because of the way the Board meetings are structured — with public comment only permitted at the beginning — there was also no opportunity for the public to challenge Venturi’s theory, (which did elicit skeptical comments outside, after the Board’s vote.)

Johnson: Water For Walmart Now, Annexation Later

Commissioner Warren Johnson said that he’d support providing water service to Walmart if the store agreed to voluntarily annexation after it is built. Commissioner Venturi said she thought that was “gambling” because Walmart could say no and opt for the County water and build the pipeline that she viewed as a threat.

walmart oriental venturi sage
From left, Commissioner Warren Johnson who successfully amended the motion to require Walmart to be voluntarily annexed if it goes on the Town’s water system, Mayor Bill Sage, and Commissioners Barbara Venturi and Larry Summers.

In the end the Board did vote 4-0 to approve water service with the Johnson amendment that Walmart agree to be annexed after it has built its structure.

Resident: Divide And Conquer By Board

Those opposed to the Walmart had wanted the Town to withhold the water, some as a symbolic gesture, others on the grounds that the Town was not bargaining well with a retail giant whose store outside the town limits would likely harm the businesses in town, who are the Board’s constituents.

Among the Board members Tuesday night, there was no mention of those concerns raised by the public at this and earlier meetings.

One speaker Tuesday night, tried to address that widening gulf. During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, resident LIli Stern took issue with the Board’s “defensiveness” with the public. In particular, Stern said that the Board was taking a “divide and conquer “ approach toward the Walmart opponents.

She asked that commissioners “please stop pitting neighbor against neighbor. That is not what this is all about.” This is not, said Stern “a County versus Town issue, a generational issue, an income issue, a race issue or a come-here/been-here/born-here issue.”

walmart oriental lili stern venturi
Lili Stern, who grew up in Oriental and moved back a year ago took issue with what she said was “defensiveness” and a “divide and conquer” approach from some commissioners.

Stern’s comments at the outset of the meeting came before Commissioner Summers’ “Jim Crow” accusation an hour later. But rather than being prescient, Stern confirmed after the meeting that she said what she did because of an email she received Monday from Commissioner Venturi after Stern emailed Venturi asking her to “stand up to WalMart even if only in a symbolic way” regarding the water service.

walmart oriental
The dais at the Oriental Town Board’s meeting room where the Board vote 4-0 to put Walmart’s store on the Town’s water system if it agreed to be annexed after its store were built.

Venturi’s response to Stern (and cc-ed to other Commissioners and sent to at least one other Walmart opponent) ran for two pages. In it Venturi took aim at ‘come-heres’ who “want to dictate a gated community mentality to a community of multi-generationals.”

“The real long-term residents,” Venturi’s email read, “endure us come-heres.”

“Regardless of what you may think,” Lili Stern, who grew up in Oriental, told the Board Tuesday night, “there is a broad diverse coalition that has asked for your consideration. Please show us that you are listening.”


Update: Walmart refused to be annexed in to Oriental, even under the condition that annexation could come after it built its WalMart Express store. Oriental town officials’ subsequent action was to let Walmart on to the Town’s water system anyway. Walmart said it would pay the town a sum each year equivalent to what it would pay in town property taxes. As of January 15, 2016 Walmart had paid the town nothing.

Related Stories

Letters To The Editor: Walmart, Water & Racism – October 2-4, 2013

Walmart Getting Oriental Water? Up To Town Board – September 28, 2013

Guest Column: If Wal-Mart Wants Town Water, Negotiate Well – September 28, 2013

Questions On Giving Water To Walmart, Numbers Show Town Could Negotiate Better – November 1, 2013

Posted Thursday October 3, 2013 by Melinda Penkava

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