Ten years ago, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents of Lancaster, New York had turned out in an overflow crowd to protest the construction of a 300,000 s.f big box plaza that included a Wal-Mart as an anchor store. The mall plans were opposed by residents of Northwood Village, a 124 unit townhouse development abutting the proposed mall. The town of Lancaster was in the middle of completing a new Master Plan, and residents argued that any rezoning for one developer should be postponed until the larger picture was settled. Enough residents showed up at a hearing in early June, 1999 that the meeting was forced to move out of the Board room and into the upstairs opera hall. But very few residents were singing the praises of Wal-Mart upstairs either. According to a report of the meeting in The Buffalo News, the “mood wasn’t exactly compromise-friendly” in the opera hall. Neighbors were worried because the developer of the property happens to sit on the Lancaster-Depew master plan committee. One nearby homeowner testified: “Average people get short shrift, while developers dream of paving over the whole town and then sitting back and counting their money.” Town officials seemed to be uninterested in conducting an environmental impact report on the project, but the county had called for traffic studies to be done. The Northwood Village residents told town officials that they were prepared to sue the town if it goes along with the rezoning. That was 1999. This week, the Buffalo News reports that this long and contentious fight has finally ended, not with a bang, but with a Wal-Mart. The retailer had a groundbreaking this week, but to get approved the company had to cut the 300,000 s.f. plaza in half. According to the News, the anti-Wal-mart group, Citizens Against Retail Sprawl (CARS) is no longer in existence, and some of the Northwood Village townhouse owners have moved away, and some remain. “It was beautiful back here,” one 19-year neighbor told the News. “You can’t blame them,” she said of Wal-Mart. “You gotta blame the politicians.” Despite the bitter battle in Lancaster, a Wal-Mart spokesman tried to suggest that opposition to Wal-Mart was just a vocal minority. “I think we didn’t do a good enough job of telling our own story,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said. “The overwhelming majority of people in Western New York love Wal-Mart.” That’s why it took ten years for the company to bargain its way in. The land Wal-Mart chose was part of the problem. It was a wooded lot that was zoned for residential use, like some of the abutting property. The Lancaster Town Board approved a zoning change and a site plan. The group CARS hired attorney David Seeger, and in 2001 the citizen’s case went to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, where the court ruled that the town’s review requirements had not been followed. “If we had not brought that suit then, they would be free to put in 300,000 square feet today,” Attorney Seeger told the Buffalo News. But CARS disbanded in 2007, and Wal-Mart made a series of concessions regarding placement of the loading docks, buffer zones, shields on the lights, a fence and berms, etc. “We decided enough is enough,” a leader of CARS told the News. “We came to an amicable agreement.” Most town officials were amicable to Wal-Mart from the start. One Councilor raised concerns about the project, however, “I don’t like the philosophy of the company,” she told the News. “It gave me high blood pressure, that’s for sure.” But Wal-Mart used its own high-pressure tactics to finally get into town.
The Town of Lancaster is located in Erie County, in Western New York State, about eleven miles east of downtown Buffalo. The town measures approximately 37 square miles. About 40,300 inhabitants call the town home. These people currently have to travel approximately 5 miles to find a Wal-Mart supercenter in Williamsville, New York. There’s also a Wal-Mart discount store 6 miles away in Cheektowaga, and a total of 6 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Lancaster. Even without this new superstore, the Lancaster trade area is already saturated with big box stores. The superstore in Lancaster will largely draw its sales from Tops and Wegmans, the other area grocery stores. The 300 jobs that Wal-Mart promised from the new plaza will in fact be merely old jobs in new polo shirts. As an economic development project, this superstore adds little value to the town. The town likes to point out that Lancaster is drained by seven streams. Now it is going to be drained by an eighth stream: Wal-Mart. Readers are urged to call Lancaster supervisor Robert Giza after hours at 716-683-1610 and leave the following message: “Supervisor Giza, It’s too bad it took ten years and a lawsuit to shrink the Wal-Mart supercenter in your town, but now that the project is starting, please keep a notebook for the local jobs that will be lost as other area merchants close. It will not happen overnight, but you will notice the difference within 24 months. As much as 80% of Wal-Mart’s sales will come from existing merchants, especially grocery stores. A recent study by MIT found that the axiom “big drives out small” is true, and that a Wal-Mart opening makes two to three discount stores unprofitable. If you are expecting 300 ‘new’ jobs, you will have a long wait. Your support for this project will be the biggest mistake in your term as Supervisor.”