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2000-04-22
Wells, ME. Wal-Mart Rejected, Wants Referendum

What part of NO don't they understand? A developer from Liverpool, NY apparently feels entitled to a zoning change from the Maine community of Wells. Selectmen in Wells voted to nix the developer's plan for 2 big box stores, a gas station, restaurant and convenience store -- all just off the Maine Turnpike. A company called HMP Northeast brought forward a 145,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter plus a 115,000 s.f. Lowe's home improvement center. But Wells selectmen voted 3-2 this week to stick with the light industrial zone, and not switch to commercial. The town held 2 public sessions on the plan, according to the Press Herald newspaper. Town officials said they picked up no strong interest from area residents in shifting major commerical activity from the small businesses strip along Route 1 to the proposed megamall. Selectmen indicated they want to maintain the rural character of that side of the community, restricting retail to Route 1 and east of exit 2 off the turnpike. But the developer's representatives have taken out papers that could bring the issue to a special townwide vote. "I don't consider this a fight," the developer's engineer told the Press Herald. "I just feel I haven't explained adequately what we'd like to do. Ultimately, this is a town-meeting form of government, so the people will decide." The developer says they are going to "revise" their proposal and "come back and talk to the town...we want a plan the voters can review in an election." The developer needs to collect 299 signatures to force a special election. The developer claims "informal street polling" shows support for the project. Meanwhile, town officials told the developer they will only entertain projects that are permitted in a light industrial zone, such as a business park. Most of the retail sector in Wells is comprised of small, local businesses.

What you can do: Last summer, Wal-Mart put itself on the ballot in the city of Eureka, California (see newsflash below) and went on to spend several hundred thousand dollars in a campaign that left them on the losing side. In Eureka, voters turned Wal-Mart rezoning down by a vote of 62%, keeping land industrially zoned. The same happened in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where citizens won a ballot measure to keep land industrially zoned. Developers often chose the land they want, ignoring the zoning map, the town's comprehensive plan and land use goals. In this case, threatening a referendum and offering to "revise" the plan could be interpreted as an effort to intimidate just one more member of the Wells Selectmen to change their vote. The fact is, Wells Selectmen are under no mandate to rezone land just because an out of state developer has its eye on a piece of property. The land Wal-Mart and Lowe's chose is not properly zoned, and they have no "as of right" use of that land for a huge mall. Wells, ME is not Paramus, New Jersey. A big box mall is totally out of keeping with the existing character of the built environment in Wells. Selectmen probably realize the project could also have a significant adverse impact on the existing economic base of the town if both stores locate near the turnpike. Wal-Mart does not sell seaside quality of life on any shelf, but once they strip it from Wells, residents and summer visitors won't be able to get it back at any price. But the residents of Wells better fasten their seatbelts, because these big box companies like to spend BIG on ballot questions. In Huntington Beach and Glendora, CA last month, Wal-Mart spent a total of nearly half a million dollars in voter campaigns. The effort to "buy" their way into an unwilling Wells is just beginning. In the meantime, Selectmen would do well to limit the size of retail stores so this kind of inappropriate development doesn't happen again.










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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