5/17/05 UPDATE: Widespread opposition from citizens and local officials determined to block Wal-Mart’s plan to skirt Dunkirk’s size cap led Wal-Mart to drop plans to build two adjacent stores. A spokesperson for the company told the Washington Post, “This is a direct response to the community outcry.”
Wal-Mart Tries to Skirt Maryland Size Cap Law
Wal-Mart is attempting to skirt a size cap law in Calvert County, Maryland, by erecting two side-by-side stores.
The law limits stores in the town of Dunkirk to no more than 75,000 square feet. Wal-Mart has proposed a 74,998-square-foot store adjacent to a 22,689-square-foot garden center.
Wal-Mart insists that there is nothing officials can do to stop the development, but county commissioners contend the plan violates the intent of the law and have asked the planning board to suspend approval of a permit pending a review by the county attorney.
Many residents are irate. Robin Gottlieb of Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth, which pushed for passage of the law, told the Washington Post, “We can’t let them get away with this. It makes a mockery of our county.”
The countywide law, which was adopted last year, prohibits stores over 120,000 square feet in the town of Prince Frederick, 75,000 square feet in Dunkirk and two other towns, and 25,000 square feet in the rest of this rural county, which has a population of 84,000.
Revealing a remarkable disregard for self-government and the wishes of communities where it does business, Wal-Mart said that it intends to use the two-store approach to evade size restrictions in other cities and towns.
Communities can protect themselves, however. Some towns have crafted size cap laws that preclude a retailer from evading the limits by constructing two separate buildings. Hailey, Idaho, for example, defines an “individual retail” establishment as one that may exist in more than one building.
While reducing the scale of superstores is critical to reducing their negative impacts, communities should also review other aspects of their planning and land use policies to ensure they provide adequate protection and foster appropriate development.
Many communities, for example, have far too much land zoned for retail development. Large swaths along every roadway are designated for strip shopping centers. Even if new stores are kept relatively small, excessive retail development will invariably undermine the viability of the downtown and other existing business districts. A better approach is to limit retail zoning to areas in and around the downtown or other neighborhood commercial districts.
Requiring new retail projects to undergo a community impact review also provides an added layer of oversight should developers attempt to get around the intent of a size cap ordinance.
A comprehensive plan that clearly articulates the community’s intentions with regard to retail development will also provide additional legal support for size caps and other zoning ordinances.