FALMOUTH – If town officials have their way, Walmart will be the last big-box store built in the Route 1 commercial corridor.
Town councilors are considering a zoning amendment that would limit the footprint of most new or expanded commercial buildings to 30,000 square feet. Grocery stores could be as large as 60,000 square feet.
Developers could seek exceptions for larger buildings, including hotels or office complexes, but retail giants such as Lowe’s and Kohl’s need not apply, said Councilor Bonny Rodden, chairwoman of the council’s Community Development Committee.
“We want to be very clear about what we feel the town should look like in the future,” Rodden said. “There are a lot of small businesses that we cherish and that form the character of our town. We don’t want (more) big-box stores in our town. We don’t want to become Maine Mall North.”
The proposed amendment is the committee’s first concrete step in developing new zoning for the Route 1 retail corridor, with an eye toward allowing more varied uses, promoting pedestrian access and creating a more village-like feel.
Other Maine towns, including Damariscotta and Nobleboro, have approved similar size limits to block big-box stores. Opinions in Falmouth vary.
Susan Hayhurst, a Falmouth resident who was eating lunch recently at Leavitt & Sons deli and wine shop on Route 1, said she would support footprint limits. She favors “smart, healthy development” that promotes locally owned businesses, she said.
But local businessman Peter Leavitt, who owns Leavitt & Sons and also lives in Falmouth, opposes footprint limits and has no qualms about having another big-box store in town.
“I would love this (area) to become like the Maine Mall,” Leavitt said. “I think it’s unrealistic to try to turn back the clock and create a village here. If you start screwing with Route 1 zoning, there’s going to be no place to do business and you’re just going to create a traffic jam. We don’t need this to be a village. We need it to be economically viable.”
The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed footprint limits on Aug. 27.
The proposed change would apply to Route 1 properties from Route 88 to the Interstate 95 connector. Footprint limits would impact existing buildings only if businesses wanted to expand.
The Route 1 business district currently has no size limit for commercial buildings, which allowed Walmart’s planned expansion from 92,000 to 124,000 square feet. The larger building will include a grocery section, a garden center and a pharmacy.
Town officials and business owners also are concerned about the future of the Falmouth Shopping Center, which is anchored by a 71,900-square-foot Shaw’s supermarket and a 50,800-square-foot space that’s been vacant since Shaw’s moved several years ago.
The shopping center’s owner, JPA Management of Braintree, Mass., recently notified tenants that the plaza is under contract to be sold to WP Realty of Bryn Mawr, Pa., said Donna Williams, owner of The Book Review. The WP website features photos of Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot and other large chains.
Many communities have been divided by debate over big-box stores competing with local or smaller businesses.
Hayhurst said she doesn’t see the need for more big-box stores in Falmouth, especially when most of them are already a few miles away in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook.
“The larger stores out-compete smaller stores and attract (motor vehicle) traffic,” Hayhurst said. “I like being able to go to the local hardware store where they know me.”
TripQuipment owner Sam Hirsh, whose travel-needs store is across from Falmouth Shopping Center, said he is more concerned that the former Shaw’s space has been vacant.
“I don’t care if it’s a big-box retailer” that goes into that space, Hirsh said. “I want something that brings people to the area.”
Williams, who has operated her bookstore in the Falmouth Shopping Center for 32 years, is less emphatic on the issue but shares a common interest in promoting commerce.
“I’m not overly concerned,” Williams said. “We already have a super Walmart going in, so the horse is kind of out of the barn. What I care about is (foot) traffic. I would love to see the area filled with small, locally owned businesses, but I don’t know if that will happen if they just restrict building footprints.”
Rodden said the committee tried to be reasonable in setting footprint limits. She noted that 30,000 square feet is a bit larger than the existing Staples store on Route 1, and 60,000 square feet is smaller than Shaw’s but larger than the Hannaford supermarket in West Falmouth. The committee is working on language that would allow second and possibly third floors.
“This amendment is the easiest and most discreet element of the Route 1 zoning review,” Rodden said. “It also sets a tone for everything else that we hope to do.”
Rodden pointed out that Falmouth officials have been talking about revamping Route 1 zoning for years, including numerous studies and countless meetings.
“Let’s get something done,” she said.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: