Wal-Mart store #1930 sits on Plaistow Road in Plaistow, New Hampshire. Just seven miles away there’s Wal-Mart discount store #3491, and 8 miles away a Wal-Mart supercnenter in Salem, New Hampshire. There are no less than 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of the current Plaistow store — including two supercenters. Plaistow is a small town, with roughly 7,700 population — not much higher than it was in 1990. But the Lawrence Eagle Tribune reports today that Wal-Mart’s plan to build a new superstore in Plaistow is under a “cloud of suspense” because of a tie-vote last night from the town’s Planning Board. The vote to rezone three residential lots on Route 125 to commercial land was a dead heat at 2-2, and even Wal-Mart’s attorney told the Board that a tie vote means the motion does not carry. “I’d rather get a right decision,” Wal-Mart’s attorney told town officials. “My understanding is a tie vote doesn’t pass. Much as it’s against my interest, I’d rather have the Planning Board make the right decision.” The Chairman of the Planning Board and one of his colleagues voted for the project, but two of his members, Peter Bealo and Neal Morin, voted it down. A 5th member had to abstain because he has an interest in the project. The matter has now been tossed to the town’s lawyer, who is being asked to render his opinion. Wal-Mart says if the additional lots are not rezoned to commercial, the existing lot they control is not big enough for their supercenter. “The size and shape of the… lot are not sufficient to develop a Wal-Mart,” the retailer’s lawyer told the newspaper. Wal-Mart’s strategy in Plaistow was to circulate petitions to put the rezoning issue before the Town Meeting. This is not really a “citizen’s petition,” because it was engineered by a private corporation, but Wal-Mart is hoping voters at Town Meeting won’t remember or care. The reason Wal-Mart went to the Planning Board was to try to get the official backing from the Planning Board, because that group’s backing would significantly improve the chances of the Town Meeting members to pass the article. As the newspaper points out, warrant articles brought by “citizens” are often in jeopardy if the Planning Board does not back them. But even if the town’s lawyer rules that a tie goes to the corporation, the real vote will come at Town Meeting which has its opening meeting on Saturday, February 2nd.
Citizen Wal-Mart used its attorney to oversee a signature collecting drive to put this issue of rezoning on the Town Meeting warrant. In past cases, Wal-Mart has hired signature gatherers to stand in front of post offices and grocery stores and collect signatures “for a new supercenter.” It is not hard to get voters to sign such petitions. The company then mails full color fliers to every voter extolling the jobs and taxes that will come from this project. But in this case, Plaistow voters are smart enough to realize that if rezoning for a supercenter is approved, the ‘old’ Wal-Mart store on Plaistow Road will be shut down, and could sit empty for years, since there is not much call for large retailers in small towns — especially in this economy. Furthermore, the only added value a supercenter brings to Plaistow is another grocery store, since the discount store merchandise already exists at the current Wal-Mart. Because the population base in Plaistow is stagnant, another grocery store will simply capture sales from Shaw’s supermarkets, or some of the smaller grocery stores in the trade area. This is not an economic development project. Readers are urged to contact the Selectmen in Plaistow by emailing Board of Selectman Chairman John Sherman through his Executive Secretary, Ruth Jenne at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Sherman and Selectmen, I am writing to urge you NOT to recommend Wal-Mart’s “citizen’s” petition to rezone land for a supercenter at Town Meeting. As you know, there are 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Plaistow, of which two are supercenters. The town’s population based has not changed much at all in the past 20 years. All the new superstore will do is cause the existing Wal-Mart on Plaistow Road to close — and maybe take one other grocery store with it. This means the town could be left with at least two empty retail stores. The Planning Board clearly had mixed feelings about this project, which does not mean jobs and taxes. It’s just a game of retail musical chairs, in which Wal-Mart wants more of the chairs. Rezoning land for one developer is a bad precedent, and undermines the whole intent of having a zoning code: to protect orderly development. This project is way too large for Plaistow, and represents the kind of corporate excesses that disregards local community needs just to make an extra buck. It’s important for the Selectmen to speak out on this issue, and to suggest to Wal-Mart that they simply take their existing store and convert it into a superstore. This would be much more compatible with town zoning, and not require any rezoning of land, or leave empty buildings behind. Wal-Mart has cut their new superstore plans in half, and are emphasizing expansions in place, not new construction. They can do it in little Plaistow as well.”