The Wal-Mart wars have returned to the Triangle, and once again public officials in Orange County are at the center of the debate.

Over the years, leaders in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have maintained a steady resistance to having the world’s largest retailer build stores in their jurisdictions. Wal-Mart’s response has been to develop retail centers just outside the Orange County line but remaining close enough to court the well-heeled Chapel Hill consumers. In the early ’90s, Wal-Mart used this strategy when it developed in New Hope Commons in Durham, just north of Orange. Now, Wal-Mart has its sights set on a location just south of Orange in Chatham County.

Wal-Mart’s interest in the Chatham location comes as no surprise. For years, residents of northern Chatham County have heard rumors that Wal-Mart was eyeing their neighborhood, and last June, a Herald-Sun report substantiated those rumors. The report confirmed that Lee-Moore Oil Company of Sanford was working with state and county officials to prepare for the construction of a Super Wal-Mart on a 62.9-acre tract of land it owned along U.S. 15-501 at the border of Chatham and Orange. Talks with the Department of Transportation concerned plans for a driveway that would connect the proposed retail store to an intersection at 15-501. They were preliminary discussions; Lee-Moore has not yet filed an official application with the county. Still, the revelation set off a flurry of oppositional activity from residents, local business owners and Orange County officials.

“People are mainly concerned about the traffic issues,” said Mark Barroso, who organized Chatham First, a citizen action group that’s fighting the Wal-Mart development. “We’ve gone through five years of hell here with the construction of 15-501. The proposed site is the bottleneck for people that live in Chatham and work at UNC.”

Chatham is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. In the past five years, the U.S. 64 bypass was built and widened. Closer to Chapel Hill, U.S. 15-501 has been under expansion since March 2001 (that project should be finished this summer). Thousands of new homes are in the pipeline for construction. Wal-Mart hopes to capitalize on all this growth. Its development would be one of many steps away from Chatham’s rural beginnings.

People that moved to Chatham for its once-rural lifestyle are up in arms. “Politically, the county is controlled by people that resist planning,” Barroso says. When Barroso posted a note on a Chatham County electronic bulletin board calling for a town meeting, nearly 200 people showed up, Barroso says. On July 28, residents, community leaders and county officials met at a restaurant in Cole Park Plaza, a shopping center near the proposed site. In addition to traffic congestion, residents were concerned with potentially negative effects on the environment and local businesses, and Wal-Mart’s widely publicized poor record of dealing with its employees.

Outside of Chatham, Orange County officials weighed in. Carrboro Alderman Alex Zaffron brought a resolution to the board calling on Chatham to carefully examine Wal-Mart’s possible effects on traffic and the environment. The resolution passed unanimously. “We have to be sensitive to what the Chatham County folks’ needs are and make sure we are supporting them in their initiative and not driving them from outside,” Zaffron said. “I’m happy to offer all the assistance I can.”

Chapel Hill Councilman Ed Harrison asked the Chapel Hill town manager to request a courtesy review if Chatham receives an application.

The 62.9-acre tract of land is on U.S. 15-501 between Smith Level and Woodbridge Roads. Only 20 of those acres are currently zoned B1 for commercial development. Wal-Mart would not need a public hearing or approval from the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to build on that portion of the tract. The developer would simply file for a building permit with the Chatham County Planning department.

The development of a Super Wal-Mart would probably require more than 20 acres, so some or all of the rest of the Lee-Moore tract would have to be rezoned for commercial use, which would require a public hearing and approval of the Chatham County commissioners. Chatham County Planning Director Keith Megginson would not comment on the likelihood of the land being rezoned because Wal-Mart has not yet filed an application.

The construction of the driveway presents another problem for Wal-Mart’s developers. In order for the Wal-Mart to be accessible, a road or driveway would have to be built from the site to 15-501. Wal-Mart’s developers would ideally like to build a new intersection between Smith Level and Woodbridge, but DOT engineers do not want to make a new intersection in the short space between the two roads. The developer’s other options are to connect to Smith Level Road to the north or Woodbridge Road to the south. Parts of Smith Level Road wind through Orange County, so Orange County would have to approve any driveway connection to that intersection. In order to connect to Woodbridge Road, Wal-Mart would have to secure easements from three landowners with tracts between the proposed site and the intersection. One of those owners is UNC.

Officials with DOT and Chatham County wouldn’t comment on the chances of success of any potential Wal-Mart proposal, citing the inability to truly assess the situation without a filed application.

Kirk Bradley, the developer at Lee-Moore Oil, could not be reached for comment on the company’s plans.

In the meantime, Mark Barroso and Chatham First will be developing a Web site to help get the word out. The group is also screening Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart documentary next Tuesday.

Public officials in Orange County can’t do much until the application is filed. The next chance Wal-Mart will have to file the application will be Dec. 19, one month before the January public hearing of the Chatham County planning committee. Until then, everyone waits.