It’s not often that you get to see two large retailers slugging it out in public, but the fight continues in the small town of Halifax, Massachusetts over a proposed ‘conversion’ of a Wal-Mart supercenter. On April 3, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Stop & Shop grocery chain, a New England-based operation owned by the Dutch Royal Ahold conglomerate, had gone public in its opposition to the conversion in Halifax. In several parts of the country, Wal-Mart has decided to take existing discount stores and convert them into superstores — without increasing the store’s footprint. Milwaukee, Wisconsin was a recent example of two discount stores being renovated into superstores inside the same building footprints. Wal-Mart is doing the same thing in Halifax — but only after failing in an attempt to expand their store. But even using the same footprint has gotten Wal-Mart in the middle of some controversy. Stop & Shop doesn’t often get into open combat with Wal-Mart, usually leaving that battle to its union — the United Food & Commercial Workers. But the gloves are off in Halifax. According to the Halifax Reporter and Enterprise, Stop & Shop is legally challenging Wal-Mart’s plans for their store on Plymouth Street. A lawyer representing Stop & Shop delivered a letter to the Halifax building inspector in April, claiming that Wal-Mart was violating the town’s zoning bylaw. Stop & Shop wants the town to force Wal-Mart to stop work on its renovation plans. In zoning parlance, Stop & Shop charges that the existing Wal-Mart is a pre-existing non-conforming structure. The lawyer says that under the town’s zoning, any “enlargement, extension or alteration” of the current building can only happen after there is a “finding” by the permit granting authority in Halifax. But the town’s building inspector disagrees, and told the Reporter that the bylaw Stop & Shop is quoting does not apply to the Wal-Mart because it was not passed until after the Wal-Mart was built in 1997. Stop & Shop also claims that a building can’t be altered if the renovation costs more than 50% of the value of the building at the time of construction. Stop & Shop estimates that the Wal-Mart was assessed at $3 to $4 million, and the renovation will cost almost $5 million. The lawyer also argues that a non-conforming use cannot be altered to become even more nonconforming, and the addition of a grocery store to the discount store would make it more non-conforming to the zoning bylaw. The building inspector told the newspaper that Stop & Shop was “testing the waters” legally to see how the town would respond. “We’re just trying to get Halifax to enforce their zoning bylaws… We feel there are violation of town and state zoning laws,” Stop & Shop’s lawyer said. A spokesman for Wal-Mart sent an email to the Halifax Reporter saying that the retailer is “confident that the building permit was validly issued and we are proceeding with our store renovation work.” This week, the Wal-Mart/Stop & Shop battle went public again, as the two companies appeared before the Halifax Zoning Board of Appeals. Wal-Mart organized its ‘customer action network’ to come to the ZBA meeting, and printed up large green stickers saying “Yes Wal-Mart” for them. “There are a lot of elements to this and we’re not sure we will be able to make a decision by our next meeting,” Zoning Board chairman Debra Tinkham told the crowd. Stop & Shop’s lawyer argued at the June 7th hearing that Wal-Mart was violating town regulations by completing the renovations. He argued the existing 104,000 s.f. store is a “pre-existing nonconforming structure” because it larger than 5,000 s.f. “We are not here to shut down Wal-Mart,” Stop & Shop’s lawyer said. “There is a process that we have to go through and everybody else does, too. We don’t feel Wal-Mart has gone through the process.” The grocery chain objects to the fact that Wal-Mart was able to get approval to renovate without going to either the Planning Board or the ZBA. Stop & Shop says that Wal-Mart is expanding its non-conforming use by selling groceries. Wal-Mart’s attorney countered that his company is a retail store, just like Stop & Shop, and is a permitted use “as of right.” Halifax’s zoning bylaw requires the Planning Board to approve building alterations larger than 5,000 s.f., which are valued at more than 50% of the assessed value of the structure. The assessed value of the Wal-Mart store is $4.6 million, and the rennovations being done are worth roughly $5 million. But Wal-Mart says the structural renovations come to less than $1 million, below the permitted threshold. The other $4.1 million in renovations are just interior renovations such as widening aisles, installing wood flooring, changing signs, changing the color scheme inside and out, as well as adding coolers, counters and new fixtures. Stop & Shop claimed that any renovations to the store are subject to the 50% rule, and therefore the Planning Board must issue a special permit before the renovations begin. “Wal-Mart can only renovate to the tune of $2.7 million,” Stop & Shop said. “Wal-Mart is trying to do an end-run around the voters of Halifax.” Stop & Shop also says the project needs a new site plan approval from the ZBA because the changes in use may result in “new and detrimental” impact on the neighborhood. “There could be more traffic… At a minimum they should be required to show there is no negative impact.” Wal-Mart gave the ZBA a traffic study conducted by their paid consultant, showing that the addition of groceries would result in only one new car trip on Plymouth Street per day on weekdays, and no additional trips during the weekend. Wal-Mart called the traffic issue “a red herring that Stop & Shop pulled out tonight.” But Wal-Mart’s own traffic study smelled fishy itself.
In early March, 2009, it was announced that the Halifax Wal-Mart would be closing for six months and would reopen in September, 2009 as a superstore. Wal-Mart said that workers at the Wal-Mart discount store in Halifax would be transferred to other Wal-Marts nearby. That should not be an issue, because there are 10 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Halifax, in addition to the Halifax store. Every single one of those stores are discount stores — not a single supercenter. Wal-Mart is running through its inventory of Massachusetts discount stores, seeking to expand them or abandon them and build a superstore nearby. The original Halifax Wal-Mart discount store was approved by the town’s Planning Board in February of 1994, so it has been open for 15 years. In January of 2006, the Halifax Planning Board rejected Wal-Mart’s first effort to expand its store into a supercenter. The company needed a special permit, but the town denied it. At the time, Wal-Mart said it would not challenge the Board’s decision to prevent their expansion. The Boston Globe quoted Wal-Mart as saying it would bring back its proposal “when the political landscape changes.” A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Globe, “We thought we had put together a pretty good project for consumers in a town where there is no competition, We won’t be coming back right away because we think we filed the best plan possible,” the company spokesman said. “We think Halifax is a good location . Sometimes these things happen quickly and sometimes they happen in years. We don’t have a time frame, and we will wait, whether it’s two years, four years, or longer.” In 2004, Wal-Mart told the Globe that if they were unable to expand their existing Halifax store on site, they could simply close down the store and build a supercenter somewhere else. That’s just what the company did in nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wal-Mart told residents in Halifax that it would not “raise that specter” of abandoning its store just to scare officials into allowing a larger store. The Wal-Mart plan in 2006 was to add 60,000 s.f. to their existing store, adding to the 100,000 s.f. the store now occupies. This plan upset Stop & Shop, which opened up a Super Stop & Shop next to the Wal-Mart. During the hearings on Wal-Mart’s Halifax expansion request, concerns were raised that a town of 8,000 people could not support two large grocery stores. The two planning board members who voted against the Wal-Mart expansion in 2006 said the retailer had not sufficiently dealt with significant traffic concerns at the site. Wal-Mart then offered to pay Halifax another $500,000 if further traffic work was needed. During the 2006 case, Stop & Shop was criticized for not agreeing to allow a connector road to be built from the Wal-Mart to the Stop & Shop exit. One of the Planning Board members who voted against the plan in 2006 said, “To me, traffic was the only stumbling block to the project. That addition would probably be good for the town. We just want to make sure the traffic plan is safe.” Although Wal-Mart said in 2006 that it was prepared to wait “four years or longer,” the company ultimately decided not to try again for a special permit, but to keep its existing store at 104,000 s.f. and just convert it into a superstore by getting a building permit to renovate the interior. Readers are urged to send an mail to Margaret Fitzgerald, Chairwoman of the Halifax Board of Selectmen at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairwoman Fitzgerald, I hope the Selectmen will get a legal opinion on the Stop & Shop charge that the building permit for Wal-Mart was illegally issued. A Wal-Mart supercenter adds no new value economically to Halifax, and you know your small community has no need for two huge grocery stores. There are already 10 Wal-Mart stores within a short drive of Halifax. Wal-Mart is trying to convert all those stores into supercenters, to gain more and more market share over the grocery industry. Your community could end up surrounded by Wal-Mart supercenters, with a dead Super Stop & Shop. This is not economic development, it’s economic displacement. Financially, it’s a zero sum game for Halifax. Open a Wal-Mart superstore, close a Super Stop & Shop. What’s so super about that? It sounds like retail musical chairs to me. I urge you to pull the building permit in this case, and avoid a costly legal battle. The Wal-Mart traffic study that they presented to the ZBA recently is a farce. If the addition of a grocery store will not attract more traffic, then Wal-Mart will financially lose its shirt on the deal. The town should insist on an independent traffic study, and then go from there.”