Tonight’s town meeting vote in the community of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts was almost as pure as Ivory soap. By an astounding margin of 96.3% of the vote, 999 residents out of 1,037 voted in favor of Article 23, which placed a 65,000 s.f. cap on retail stores in the business and industrial zones. The ordinance also counts any two stores within 1,500 feet of one another, and under common ownership, as one building in the aggregate for the purpose of measuring the cap limit. That provision was included to prevent a developer from “gaming” the cap by constructing two stores side-by-side, each slightly smaller than 65,000 s.f. Wal-Mart actually threatened to do just that in Dunkirk, Maryland earlier this year, but a week later backed down from that threat. The cap amendment was offered by the Chairman of East Longmeadow’s Board of Selectman, Jim Driscoll, and before tonight’s vote, it was unanimously endorsed by both the Planning Board and the Selectmen. At the hearing, Driscoll asked Sprawl-Busters to explain the ordinance and its purpose. The citizen’s group, East Longmeadow First, supported the size cap as a way to manage growth, and preserve the small town character of East Longmeadow. Last August, a developer from South Carolina submitted plans to state officials for a Lowe’s home improvement store at 147,000 s.f. in East Longmeadow. No project, however, was submitted to the town for review, and no Planning Board consideration of the plan ever took place. In the interim, to address the issue of growth management, Selectman Driscoll placed his amendment before town meeting. The High School auditorium was packed, and the overflow crowd had to be accommodated in the cafeteria by TV hookup. Outside the building, bright red signs supporting a “Yes on 23” vote were very visible, and as residents entered the building, they received a Yes on 23 lapel sticker, and a two page “talking points” document about the ordinance. Voters were so eager to reach Article 23, that they adopted a motion to move the item up on the agenda. The article itself had to pass with a two-thirds supermajority, but when the Moderator of the meeting called for people to rise in support of the amendment, almost the entire auditorium rose to their feet at once. When those opposed had their chance, only 38 people voted against the plan. The attorney for the South Carolina developer, during her presentation, essentially warned voters that the ordinance being proposed could lead to a lawsuit, and she was booed for positioning the issue in that manner.
When I spoke at the hearing, I reminded voters that one thing they don’t sell on any big box shelf is small town quality of life. But once they take it from you, they can’t sell it back at any price. To my knowledge, there has never been a size cap vote that passed with 96.3% of the vote. It was a remarkable rejection of the big box format by a small town in southwest Massachusetts. For local contacts with East Longmeadow First, contact [email protected]