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2009-04-03
Halifax, MA. Two Chain Store Rattle Each Otherís Chains

In several parts of the country, Wal-Mart has decided to take existing discount stores and convert them into superstores -- without increasing the store's footprint. Milwaukee, Wisconsin was a recent example of two discount stores being renovated into superstores inside the same building footprint. The retailer is doing the same thing in the tiny town of Halifax, Massachusetts, but only after failing in an attempt to expand their store. But even using the same footprint has gotten Wal-Mart in the middle of some controversy. The grocery chain Stop & Shop doesn't often get into open combat with Wal-Mart, usually leaving that battle to its union -- the United Food & Commercial Workers. But the gloves are off in Halifax. According to the Halifax Reporter and Enterprise, Stop & Shop, which is owned by the Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold, is threatening legal action if the town of Halifax doesn't put a stop to Wal-Mart's plan to expand an existing store on Plymouth Street into a superstore. A lawyer representing Stop & Shop delivered a letter to the Halifax building inspector, claiming that Wal-Mart is violating the town's zoning bylaw. Stop & Shop wants the town to force Wal-Mart to stop work on its expansion plans. In zoning parlance, Stop & Shop charges that the existing Wal-Mart is a pre-existing non-conforming structure. The lawyer says that under the town's zoning, any "enlargement, extension or alteration" of the current building can only happen after there is a "finding" by the permit granting authority in Halifax. But the town's building inspector disagrees, and told the Reporter that the bylaw Stop & Shop is quoting does not apply to the Wal-Mart because it was not passed until after the Wal-Mart was built in 1997. Stop & Shop also claims that a building can't be altered if the renovation costs more than 50% at the time of construction. Stop & Shop estimates that the Wal-Mart was assessed at $3.2 million, and the renovation will cost almost $5 million. The lawyer also argues that a non-conforming use cannot be altered to become even more nonconforming, and the addition of a grocery store to the discount store would make it more non-conforming to the zoning bylaw. The building inspector told the newspaper that Stop & Shop is "testing the waters" legally to see how the town will respond. If the building inspector does not order a halt to the renovations within two weeks, Stop & Shop can appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals. "We're just trying to get Halifax to enforce their zoning bylaws and the commonwealth's letter. We feel there are violation of town and state zoning laws," Stop & Shop's lawyer said. A spokesman for Wal-Mart sent an email to the Halifax Reporter saying that the retailer is "confident that the building permit was validly issued and we are proceeding with our store renovation work."

What you can do: In early March, 2009, it was announced that the Halifax Wal-Mart would be closing for six months and would reopen in September, 2009 as a superstore. Wal-Mart said that workers at the Wal-Mart discount store in Halifax would be transferred to other Wal-Marts nearby. That should not be an issue, because there are 10 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Halifax, in addition to the Halifax store. Every single one of those stores are discount stores -- not a single supercenter. Wal-Mart is running through its inventory of Massachusetts discount stores, seeking to expand them or abandon them and build a superstore nearby. The original Halifax Wal-Mart discount store was approved by the town's Planning Board in February of 1994, so it has been open for 15 years. In January of 2006, the Halifax Planning Board rejected Wal-Mart's first effort to expand its store into a supercenter. The company needed a special permit, but the town denied it. At the time, Wal-Mart said it would not challenge the Board's decision to prevent their expansion. The Boston Globe quoted Wal-Mart as saying it would bring back its proposal "when the political landscape changes." A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Globe, "We thought we had put together a pretty good project for consumers in a town where there is no competition, We won't be coming back right away because we think we filed the best plan possible," the company spokesman said. "We think Halifax is a good location [for a Supercenter]. Sometimes these things happen quickly and sometimes they happen in years. We don't have a time frame, and we will wait, whether it's two years, four years, or longer." In 2004, Wal-Mart told the Globe that if they were unable to expand their existing Halifax store on site, they could simply close down the store and build a supercenter somewhere else. That's just what the company did in nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wal-Mart told residents in Halifax that it would not "raise that specter" of abandoning its store just to scare officials into allowing a larger store. The Wal-Mart plan in 2006 was to add 60,000 s.f. to their existing store, adding to the 100,000 s.f. the store now occupies. This plan upset Stop & Shop, which opened up a Super Stop & Shop next to the Wal-Mart. During the hearings on Wal-Mart's Halifax expansion request, concerns were raised that a town of 8,000 people could not support two large grocery stores. The two planning board members who voted against the Wal-Mart expansion in 2006 said the retailer had not sufficiently dealt with significant traffic concerns at the site. Wal-Mart then offered to pay Halifax another $500,000 if further traffic work was needed. During the 2006 case, Stop & Shop was criticized for not agreeing to allow a connector road to be built from the Wal-Mart to the Stop & Shop exit. One of the Planning Board members who voted against the plan in 2006 said, "To me, traffic was the only stumbling block to the project. That addition would probably be good for the town. We just want to make sure the traffic plan is safe." Although Wal-Mart said in 2006 that it was prepared to wait "four years or longer," the company ultimately decided not to try again for a special permit, but to keep its existing store at 102,000 s.f. and just convert it into a superstore by getting a building permit to renovate the interior. Readers are urged to send an mail to Margaret Fitzgerald, Chairwoman of the Halifax Board of Selectmen at cseelig@town.halifax.ma.us with the following message: "Dear Chairwoman Fitzgerald, I hope the Selectmen will get a legal opinion on the Stop & Shop charge that the building permit for Wal-Mart was illegally issued. A Wal-Mart supercenter adds no new value economically to Halifax, and you know your small community has no need for two huge grocery stores. There are already 10 Wal-Mart stores within a short drive of Halifax. Wal-Mart is trying to convert all those stores into supercenters, to gain more and more market share over the grocery industry. Your community could end up surrounded by Wal-Mart supercenters, and a dead Super Stop & Shop. This is not economic development, it's economic displacement. Financially, it's a zero sum game for Halifax. Open a Wal-Mart superstore, close a Super Stop & Shop. What's so super about that? It sounds like retail musical chairs to me. I urge you to pull the building permit in this case, and avoid a costly legal battle."










 
 
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