This week Wal-Mart suffered a very embarrassing defeat at the ballot box. On March 10, 2009, nearly 8 out of 10 voters at the Plaistow, New Hampshire town meeting voted against a rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Of the 1,616 residents who cast their votes, 1,285 (79.5%) voted against Wal-Mart, and 331 (20.5%) voted for the rezoning. This was a situation where Wal-Mart put itself on the ballot. In Plaistow, when Wal-Mart didn’t have enough land to build a superstore, it put itself on the Town Meeting Warrant for a rezoning. Plaistow is a small town with roughly 7,700 population — not much higher than it was in 1990. The town already has Wal-Mart store #1930 on Plaistow Road. Seven miles away there’s Wal-Mart discount store #3491, and 8 miles away a Wal-Mart supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire. There are no less than 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of the current Plaistow store — including two supercenters. So residents in Plaistow are very familiar with this corporation, and its impact on their community. But the Lawrence Eagle Tribune reported in early January that Wal-Mart’s plan to build a new superstore in Plaistow was under a “cloud of suspense” because of a tie-vote 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 meant the motion did 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. 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 was hoping that voters at Town Meeting wouldn’t remember or care. The reason Wal-Mart went to the Planning Board was to try to get the official backing from the Board, because that group’s backing would significantly improve the chances of the Town Meeting members voting to pass the article. Warrant articles brought by “citizens” are often in jeopardy if the Planning Board does not back them. In early March, the “Wal-Mart article” on the town warrant was in the news, because a group of local residents had organized a grassroots campaign to defeat the article. Opponents of the rezoning for Wal-Mart said they were concerned about Wal-Mart’s traffic — not Wal-Mart per se. “I love Wal-Mart. I drive to the Supercenter in Epping,” said one prominent opponent, former State Representative Merilyn Senter. “I’d love to see a Supercenter herein Plaistow.” According to Senter, the County’s Planning Commission traffic says there are 7,000 cars going up and down Main Street daily, and that many shoppers heading for Wal-Mart on Route 125 will go through Main Street to get there — and Main Street cannot handle it. Voters on March 10th were asked to rezone three residential lots to commercial, to pave the way for the Wal-Mart superstore. The Planning Board refused to put the rezoning change on the warrant, which was not a good sign. So Wal-Mart had to put it on as a “citizen’s petition.” A resident named David Averill started an e-mail campaign to defeat the warrant article, and told the media he thought opponents could stop the Wal-Mart. “Oh, absolutely,” he told the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. “I don’t see why people would be motivated to come out and vote for it. It’s not anything against Wal-Mart. It’s not wanting to have any giant box store on Main Street.” It turns out Averill was right: only one in five voters turned out to support Wal-Mart — despite the company’s much-touted “Citizen Action Network.” The Wal-Mart issue brought Plaistow voters out of the woodwork. According to local officials, the 28% turnout at the election was roughly twice the typical turnout. There are 6,175 registered voters in Plaistow, and 1,709 turned out to participate in the vote. As a result, there will be no Wal-Mart superstore on the corner of Main Street and Plaistow Road — unless the company decides to build a smaller store.
“Wal-Mart was the big issue,” one resident told the Eagle Tribune newspaper. “We don’t want them to put it where they’re proposing it. It’d be unsafe.” In advance of the vote, Wal-Mart said it needed the additional 3 lots to proceed, and had the lots under a purchase-and-sale agreement, or under negotiation. “Right now, we have such an issue with traffic going through the rural neighborhoods to connect to Route 125,” another resident said. She said a “super-duper Wal-Mart” would make the current traffic congestion even worse. Area residents in Plaistow had been getting telemarketing phone calls asking people if they were for or against the superstore. Wal-Mart would not admit it has any connection with the calls. “Unfortunately, I just can’t comment right now about the project,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Eagle Tribune. It is not known yet how much money Wal-Mart spent to earn its 331 votes in Plaistow. In some ballot questions, Wal-Mart has spent between $250,000 and $500,000. David Averill, the anti-rezoning organizer, told the newspaper, “It’s not like crowds with pitchforks are coming out over this. All you can do is reach out and let people know it’s a safety issue and it’s just changing the character of Main Street. It’s a bad site to develop.” The wife of a selectman in town told the newspaper that she got her Wal-Mart ‘survey’ call last week. “They just said they were taking a survey to see who wanted a Wal-Mart and who didn’t. And before I answered, I asked him if there were more pros than cons. He said more people seemed to be against it. Then he said we have a tight little community and I said, ‘Yes, and we’re proud of it’.” Plaistow Planning Board member Peter Bealo explained why he voted against the Wal-Mart proposal when it came to his Board. “I think we have to take control of Main Street,” he said. Bealo filed a petition to convert a section of Main Street from a state road to a town road. But his petition was later amended to require a study of the impact of reclassifying the entire length of Main Street, to be completed by Dec. 1, 2009. But the Chairman of the Selectman, John Sherman, didn’t mince his words. He told the Eagle Tribune that if people don’t want Wal-Mart, they should simply vote against the citizen’s petition. 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 to collect signatures. The company then mails full color fliers to every voter extolling the jobs and taxes that will allegedly come from this project. But in this case, Plaistow voters were smart enough to realize that if rezoning for a supercenter was approved, the ‘old’ Wal-Mart store on Plaistow Road would 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, Congratulations on a wonderful voter outcome on March 10th! As you know, there are 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Plaistow, of which two are supercenters. The town’s population base has not changed much at all in the past 20 years. All a new superstore would 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. 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 greed that disregards local community needs just to make an extra buck. Wal-Mart could 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. This proposal is just the wrong size, and the wrong location for a big box suburban store. But if you want to prevent this from happening again, put a cap of 65,000 s.f. on the size of superstores — or else this scenario could happen again on some other parcel in Plaistow.”