Here’s an update from the town of Easton, Maryland, from a sprawl-busters on the scene: “Home Depot attempted getting approval for a store in the small town of Easton (population 11,000) in Talbot County (population 35,000) last year. Because of this and other BIG BOX applications, The Town asked for a Moratorium for 90 days in order to study the issue. Its Comprehensive Plan drafted in 1997 did not forsee this type of major retail development so it paused to think about it. After the Moratorium and many hearings that attracted much public input, The Town voted 3 to 2 to cap the size of major retail or BIG BOX to 65,000 square feet. (This size was seen as a large store — but to be fair to Lowes, which has a 65,000 s.f. store in Easton, it was thought this was a good compromise). It just so happens that this cap kept the major BIG BOX stores out of Easton but just weeks later, Home Depot entered into an agreement to purchase 8 lots in the Limited Industrial Park just over the town line in Talbot County. The County Planning and Zoning office was charged with reviewing the site plan for the proposed 135,000 s.f. Home Depot in the Talbot Commerce Park. Since Talbot County did not have General Commercial zoning the Home Depot called itself the following so it could become a permitted use in the Limited Industrial Zone: 1) A Lumber Yard (even though they were not proposing a lumber yard) 2) A Farm Machinery Operation, which allows sales of garden supplies. (Try to harvest your farm field with the riding mower purchased at Home Depot) 3) A Green House and Plant nursery (Is anything grown from seed at Home Depot? In a Greenhouse?) The Talbot County Planning Officer said he spent three days at a Home Depot in Annapolis and it was his opinion that the Home Depot was a permitted use in the Limited Industrial Zone. Our group, The Talbot Preservation Alliance, went to court to challenge the planning officer’s ruling that Home Depot is a permitted use in this zone. By a vote of 4 to 1, TPA won its case at the Board of Appeals Level. Home Depot is appealing this currently in Circuit Court and the case will come up in the spring of 2001. But wait…..it gets better. Rather than wait for the Circuit Court to rule, the Home Depot, the landowners of the Limited Industrial Park and (get this) Lowe’s and the landowners of a neighboring Limited Industrial Park and their attorneys (Hows that for friendly competition?) have joined forces to introduce legislation to the County Council that will allow Home Improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s into the Limited Industrial Zone! As crazy as it sounds, it just might work. In other words, if you do like the rules …just change them. Lowes now is joining with Home Depot to write the legislation that will allow the Home Depot in its LI zone and the existing Lowes will move out of the Town of Easton to their new site in the County LI Zone. This is where things stand today in Easton. The big corporations have legal muscle and time to keep probing and morphing themselves as needed to get what they want. Does it seem strange that Home Depot and Lowes travel together and are often seen within spitting distance of each other? Competition is not what it used to be.
I have seen cases before where Home Depot will claim it is a warehouse to get into a zoning district that permits warehouses but not retail stores. Home Depot tried to make the case that they were a warehouse, but instead of hoaving a separate warehouse building, they in essence had a their warehouse over the heads of the shoppers. It is also common for big box stores to lose in one community and immediately knock on door of the next town over, or the county. Frequently because there is no regional planning, a county will disregard the wants of the town, in this case Talbot County watched Easton put a size cap on buildings, and then proceeded to entertain a proposal from Home Depot in an area that does not even appear to be properly zoned for them. Here’s some parting advice from our source in Easton: “Best of luck and remember…try and spend the time to look under every rock and question each piece of information that is put on the table from the other side. You must do your homework if you are going to stay ahead of these companies. Find eager volunteers and meet each week to discuss strategy. Use your resources carefully but do not be afraid to call a good lawyer because sometimes that is what has to be done.” For contacts at the Talbot Preservation Alliance, contact [email protected]