We reported on 12/4/99 (see newsflash index) that the town of Exeter, New Hampshire was going to vote on a zoning amendment to limit the size of superstores in town to 65,000 s.f. The Citizens for Smart Growth brought the zoning amendment to Town Meeting, aware that a zoning change would require a 2/3rds supermajority to pass. On March 14 the voters of Exeter gave a 51% margin to the superstore cap — a majority of votes, but short of the 2/3rds needed to pass. But the Citizens for Smart Growth made it clear that they considered the majority endorsement an important victory and message to Wal-Mart. “Our goal was to educate people on big box retailers,” said Kathy Corson, from the CSG, “and we educated at least 1,500 people. I feel we had a victory…Now a big box retailer that comes to town knows that its not going to be a simple process for approval because Citizens for Smart Growth will be there at every step.” A pro-Wal-Mart group was formed in town, called the Citizens for Planned and Responsible Growth. The warrant article obtained a majority vote despite the fact that the Planning Board was against it, and the town’s Economic Development Commission was critical of the petition. “If you want to be heard, you can be heard,” said the head of the Economic Development Commission. “You didn’t need to do these citizen ‘s petitions to be heard. They have always had a voice. They chose not to use their voice in the appropriate manner.” Wal-Mart is considered to be actively seeking land in Exeter after withdrawing their plans from neighboring Stratham, NH. (see newsflash above).
When and if Wal-Mart makes a move in Exeter, it can no longer claim that anti-big box sentiment is just the expression of a vocal minority in town. It is remarkable that 51% of the voters went against their own Planning Board and municipal officials and voted no confidence in a retail store.