This week, Wal-Mart opponents in a small Ohio community won a sudden — and unanticipated — victory against the world’s largest retailer. On July 11, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Etna, Ohio had organized to fight off a proposed 203,819 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter on the east side of Route 310, across from a housing development. There is a Wal-Mart superstore about 10 miles away in Ashland, Kentucky, and four other supercenters within 22 miles of Etna. The trade area is saturated with Wal-Mart stores. “Wal-Mart is attempting to purchase land in Etna Township, Ohio (near Pataskala). The majority of Etna is farmland, corn fields, trees and wildlife,” one resident wrote in 2005. “There are only two small housing subdivisions. Most of the residents here enjoy the ‘small town’ atmosphere (we are only 15 miles or so from Columbus) and so was the reason for moving in this area. We are devastated that Wal-Mart is attempting to build. Our home, for instance has a beautiful tree line and cornfield to view. We perish the thought that we may soon be viewing the back of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and listening to the sounds of trucks and honking horns.” On June 8, 2008, almost three years after that first report from Etna, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart was still battling to get into Etna, and one man’s legal battle was all that kept them from building. Plaintiff Gilbert Guttentag kept Wal-Mart from starting work on their site. The retailer told the Newark Advocate newspaper that it wanted to have a store open by the end of 2008. In June of 2008, the District Court ruled that Guttentag had filed his appeal of the second permit in a timely way, and they sent his appeal back to the Licking County Common Pleas Court. While these legal cases were in process, the landowners and Guttentag also sued each other. On September 22nd — just four days ago — Sprawl-Busters noted that Etna Township, Guttentag, Wal-Mart, and the Langel family, which owns property where Wal-Mart wants to build, had reached an agreement to settle five lawsuits. As part of the agreement, Wal-Mart agreed to submit an amended zoning permit to build yet a smaller, 144,000-s.f. store on 20 acres of land. Wal-Mart would be given one year to start construction on the store, and two-and-a-half years to complete it. “One of the components is Wal-Mart is going to ask for a smaller-sized store on the site,” said the lawyer who represents the landowners. In effect, Guttentag won a 30% victory — knocking the store size down to 70% of its original size. After the announcement of a settlement, Guttentag told the newspaper, “It’s just a stupid location.” He said the smaller size of the new plans were some consolation to him for all his work. “It appears to be a very toned-down store, if they go ahead (with it),” he said. But this week, the Newark Advocate newspaper reported a dramatic turn in the road. Wal-Mart announced on September 24th that it was pulling out of its plans to build a superstore in Etna. The retailer’s decision came right on the heels of the announced legal settlement. “Wal-Mart has announced that it has decided not to move forward with the proposed supercenter site on (Ohio) 310,” said a company ‘public affairs manager.’ “Our company announced last year it would slow expansion in response to shareholders’ input and to focus resources on existing stores. One Etna Township Trustee, Dick Knapp, told the Advocate, “It was a very poor location for them to locate there. I’m happy to hear they’re not. It’s good for the overall planning for us to maintain our quality of life in Etna Township. The residents… have to be elated.” The lawyer representing the landowners said he was surprised at the sudden decision, and said the owners did not want to comment further. As usual, Wal-Mart tried to make it look like they were still interested in a store somewhere in Etna. “We’re always interested in potential opportunities for growth and serving our customers,” the company spokesman said.
In 2000, Etna had a population of just over 5,400 people. The trade area is already adequately served by Wal-Mart stores. Etna likes to say that Etna Township is within a 1,000 mile radius of 50% of the U.S. population. “Today,” the township boasts, “quick access to a major city (Columbus), two international airports, universities and a huge, diverse employment pool have accelerated growth and provide a bright economic future for the township.” Readers are urged to email Dick Knapp, President of the Township’s Board of Trustees at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear President Knapp, Your comments on the Wal-Mart withdrawal were exactly correct: it was a bad location for a superstore. It took Wal-Mart three years to realize it, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of its shareholders’ money. Their proposal was far too big for your small town. Even with a footprint cut by 30% — but it’s still far too large for your small community. This kind of proposal should never divide the community again into winners and losers. Many of the homeowners in his residential development, were rightly concerned about the traffic, noise, lights and crime that come with Wal-Mart superstores. All of these negative impacts are caused by scale. Now Etna should take proactive steps to prevent this kind of suburban sprawl from happening again. As President, you should consider putting a cap of 65,000 s.f. on the size of new retail buildings, so that residential areas don’t lose out when encroached by large commercial projects. The Etna Board of Trustees have to watch out for its homeowners. Limit the size of stores, before the stores limit your small town character. This store was three times the size of a football field. For a town with less than 6,000 people — that’s way too big.”