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2009-10-24
Swansea, MA. Battle Continues Over Wal-Mart Replacement Store

On June 2, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart made a small donation out of its petty cash in return for a multi-million land deal. Wal-Mart had plans to abandon its 'old' store in Swansea, Massachusetts, and build a new superstore next door. It was reported in January of 2009 that a proposal to build a supercenter in Swansea, Massachusetts was moving forward, as the company prepared to present its proposal to the Swansea Planning Board for site plan review. Swansea is a small community of roughly 16,000 people in southeastern Massachusetts, bordered by Barrington and Warren, Rhode Island, on the west and southwest, about 47 miles south of Boston, and 12 miles southeast of Providence, Rhode Island. The community already has an existing Wal-Mart discount store at the Swansea Mall, which calls itself "a complete entertainment experience." Sprawl-Busters first reported on Swansea on September 8, 2007, when Wal-Mart applied to expand their existing Wal-Mart on Swansea Mall Drive into a 161,000 s.f. store, according to a site plan submitted to the town by the mall's owner, the Carlyle Development Group, based in White Plains, New York. Carlyle has been around since 1982, and calls itself an "expert in identifying undervalued real estate." Carlyle bought the Swansea Mall seven years ago from an insurance company, and the New York State Pension Fund. At that time, half of the four anchor spots at the Mall were vacant. Macy's and Sears were two existing anchors in the Swansea Mall. Wal-Mart said it wanted to build supercenters in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, and in Woonsocket and Warwick, Rhode Island. These three supercenter proposals are relocations from existing stores -- so three "dark stores" will be created by this power shift into larger boxes. Wal-Mart's original plan in Swansea called for demolishing the current 93,000 s.f. Wal-Mart to build the larger one, with a larger parking lot. That store was in an old Caldor's building that was bought by Wal-Mart after it drove Caldor's out of business in New England. Wal-Mart eventually shaved down the store size to 158,519 s.f. Residents on one of the abutting streets complained about the original plan, and appealed a Zoning Board decision granting a parking variance for the proposal. Added to the 972 parking spaces in the original proposal, Wal-Mart wanted to add another 380 parking spaces to comply with the current parking bylaw. "This (additional parking) has come at considerable expense, to the tune of more than $1 million," a Swansea official told The Fall River Herald News. Wal-Mart claims the new store will add 103 new jobs to the existing 222 jobs at the existing Wal-Mart. The town's Conservation Commission was concerned about stormwater runoff created by the project and the expansion of the parking lot into an undeveloped area, but the town's planner said Wal-Mart hopes to have the supercenter open for business by the spring of 2011. At a public hearing in January, many Swansea residents were forced to wait out in the hallway of the meeting room or have standing room only in the back of the room. "It's Wal-Mart, so it's going to attract a lot of people here who want to see the plans," Swansea's town Planner explained. Wal-Mart had confirmed that it planned to tear down the existing Caldor's building, to create a parking lot big enough to handle the superstore traffic. Town residents complained in January about the design plans, and Wal-Mart agreed to pay for new stoplights at the Route 195 west and east ramps, and pay for other traffic management costs, including a Transportation Demand Management plan to promote the use of mass transit to the site. Wal-Mart hopes to begin building the store in April of 2010, with an opening 10 months later. The town's Planner told the Herald News that a major concern for the town was pedestrian safety at the store. Instead of asking why a larger store is necessary, and what added value it brings to Swansea, the town focused on lighted crosswalks. On June 1, 2009, Swansea's planning board approved the site plans for the new Wal-Mart Supercenter. As part of the deal, Wal-Mart agreed to donate $50,000 to the town to use for the fire and police departments. New stoplights will be installed at the Interstate 195 east and westbound ramps, and Wal-Mart will replace the traffic signal controller at Route 6 and Route 118. In a triumph of dumb growth, the new supercenter will sit right next to the old Wal-Mart in the Swansea Mall parking lot. But first Wal-Mart has to get past Swansea neighbors. The Fall River Herald reported in June that residents have challenged the superstore in Superior Court, and the town meeting has just passed a new zoning bylaw reducing the required size of parking lots. Swansea's Special Town Meeting means the store now requires only 551 parking spaces, instead of the nearly 800 required by the old zoning code. Under the new code, commercial developments will have to provide five spaces per 1,000 square feet for the first 25,000 square feet, four spaces per 1,000 square feet for the next 25,000 square feet, and three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet after the first 50,000. Under the former zoning bylaws, written more than 50 years ago, a commercial development had to provide five parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet, no matter the size of the project. Wal-Mart's current plan includes approval for 972 parking spaces -- plus 380 additional spaces that cut into a hillside with trees. Residents on Maple Avenue in Swansea appealed the Zoning Board of decision, charging that the superstore "will be detrimental to the area" and will "result in significant impacts" to the property owners near the mall, including an increase in traffic, loss of parking spaces and interference with access to their properties. "Now, the new zoning bylaw has been passed, and I expect Wal-Mart to return to the Planning Board with a new site plan that will eliminate the 380 parking spaces," a town planner said. Under the new zoning law, the superstore should have a minimum of 551 spaces in its parking lot (the store was approved at 158,519 s.f.), not 972. The project is still 421 spaces over the minimum. If you add in the extra 380 that Wal-Mart has not taken out yet, the parking area is officially 145% in excess of the new minimums -- or nearly one and a half times larger than it needs to be. But the neighbors have not given up ground. This week, the Herald News reports that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection rejected area residents' appeal that the town's Conservation Commission should have had jurisdiction over the Wal-Mart Supercenter project, and that a Notice of Intent was needed from the commission before the project could go forward. The Conservation Commission had refused to get involved in the plan, saying the store would not be located in a 100-foot buffer zone or in wetlands. On October 20th, the DEP said the town's Conservation Commission has no jurisdiction over the project based on the state's Wetlands Protection Act. "This means the developers don't have to file with the Conservation Commission," said the Swansea Conservation Agent "They have all the permits they need besides the building permit." Residents now have 10 business days to appeal the state decision. "Our office of appeals would look at all the information and try to bring the parties together to try and reach a solution," a DEP spokesman explained, "and if not, they will go to a prehearing conference, then a hearing, before a decision is handed down." The group of roughly 52 area residents told the Herald News they were not sure if they would appeal or not, because appeals were likely to cost more money. Wal-Mart told the media that they had hoped to have a Swansea superstore open by February of 2011, but now that timetable could be delayed.

What you can do: Neighbors of the Swansea Mall are justifiably concerned about how the project will kick up the traffic flow in and out of the mall, which will have an impact on the surrounding roadways. There are often other local zoning problems that such expansions trigger. The expansion from a discount store to a superstore also will do nothing economically for the area, because all that is being added is another grocery store, which will, in all likelihood, have the impact of stealing market share from other competitors in the area, like Stop & Shop, a unionized store. Readers are urged to email the Chairman of the Swansea Board of Selectmen, Scott Ventura at: jhelley@town.swansea.ma.us with the following message: "I was appalled at the Planning Board/Conservation Commission approval of Wal-Mart's bid to tear down their existing store just to build a larger facility in the same mall. All this will bring to Swansea is more traffic, more crime, and more land covered with asphalt. The neighbors have already sued once over the issue of traffic and parking -- and the new plan is almost the same size as the old one -- so that's not really a factor. The new plan adds more than 380 new parking spaces on undeveloped land, on top of the 972 spaces in the original plan. Swansea's new zoning code requires only 551 spaces. This means Wal-Mart's parking lot today is 145% above the required zoning. This is wasteful and unnecessary. All the larger Wal-Mart will do is steal market share from existing grocery stores. But it does not mean new jobs or revenues for Swansea. This is a frivolous project that offers little or nothing to taxpayers. It's time for Swansea Selectmen to look out for its own residents and taxpayers, instead of following the script written by these national retailers. This project should never have been approved, and the Selectmen should ask Wal-Mart to convert its existing store into a supercenter, rather than tear down one building to erect another. It looks like developers get to design their town in Swansea."










 
 
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