In March 2006, voters in Damariscotta, Maine, overwhelming approved the following measure barring stores over 35,000 square feet (about the size of a medium grocery store). The size cap was approved by a 62 to 38 percent margin in what officials say was one of the largest election turnouts in the town’s history. More than 1,200 ballots were cast, representing about 80 percent of voters.
The measure was placed on the ballot by a citizens group, Our Town Damariscotta, which formed when residents discovered that Wal-Mart had plans to build a 187,000-square-foot supercenter in this village of just 2,000 people. Passage of the store size cap effectively blocks Wal-Mart’s plans.
Damariscotta has a lively downtown and numerous locally owned businesses, including an 85-year-old grocery store, a pharmacy, bookstore, hardware store, and department store. There are already three Wal-Mart stores to the north, west, and south of town, each about thirty minutes away.
Wal-Mart bankrolled an “astroturf” group to defeat Damariscotta’s size cap initiative, complete with lawn signs, a barrage of direct mail, and newspaper ads.
But Our Town successfully countered with a strong grassroots campaign. They recruited dozens of volunteers, set up phone banks to contact voters, distributed lawn signs and baseball caps, mailed flyers, and hosted numerous public forums with expert speakers.
Local business owners threw their support behind the cap. Virtually every storefront in town displayed a bright red poster supporting the cap. The local Chamber of Commerce held a press conference to endorse the measure.
Perhaps Our Town’s savviest move was making their campaign regional. When Wal-Mart threatened to locate just beyond Damariscotta’s borders if barred from the town itself, Our Town reached out to residents of neighboring communities, who launched their own campaigns to implement size caps. Several have succeeded, including one in Nobleboro.
Below is the petition that voters endorsed. This language was subsequently incorporated into the town’s zoning code.
- Our Town – The movie!
Damariscotta Petition Language
We,the undersigned registered voters of Damariscotta, numbering more than 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, wish to encourage reasonable retail development while preserving the small town character of our community. The town’s Comprehensive Plan describes the village center as a “thriving, charming commercial area”(Supplement, p.103) and prioritizes the need “to enhance the viability of the Downtown” (Supplement, p. 109). We believe that the construction of huge retail stores will threaten the viability of the Downtown, create traffic congestion, and put an undue burden on ourtown’s infrastructure. We believe that amending Damariscotta’s land use ordinance to include a 35,000 square foot size cap in all commercial districts will support the local economy and preserve the scale and character of the Downtown. We therefore petition the Board of Selectmen to call a special town meeting within 60 days to vote on the following changes to Article 5 of the Damariscotta Land Use Ordinance:
AMENDMENT TO ARTICLE 5, SECTION A (Purpose), to state as follows:
To provide general retail sales, services, and business space within the Town of Damariscotta in locations capable of conveniently servicing community wide and/or regional trade areas. To preserve the scale, character, and economy of the Downtown in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan by implementing a 35,000 square foot size cap on retail development in all commercial districts, effective as of November 1, 2005.
AMENDMENT TO ARTICLE 5, SECTION B (Downtown Commercial District (C1)), 3b (Space Standards), to add, at the bottom of 3b, the following language:
No single retail store whether located in a single building, a combination of buildings, single tenant space, and/or combination of tenant spaces shall exceed 35,000 gross square feet of floor area in the aggregate. This size restriction shall apply to new retail stores and expansion of existing retail stores, effective as of November 1, 2005.
AMENDMENTTO ARTICLE 5, SECTION C (Other Commercial District (C2)), 3b (Space Standards), to add, at the bottom of 3b, the following language: No single retail store whether located in a single building, a combination of buildings, single tenant space, and/or combination of tenant spaces shall exceed 35,000 gross square feet of floor area in the aggregate. This size restriction shall apply to new retail stores and expansion of existing retail stores, effective as of November 1, 2005.
Theprovisions of these amendments shall apply to all proceedings, applications and petitions pending on, or commenced after, the date of filing this petition with the Town Clerk’s Office of the Town of Damariscotta on November 1, 2005.