The announcement that Wal-Mart plans to open a store in Westbrook has some residents hoping the retail giant can be fended off a second time.

A group of residents successfully fought to block a proposed Wal-Mart store in 2003, arguing, among other things, that it didn’t belong near a residential neighborhood.

But this time, those who oppose the company face a greater challenge.

The proposal announced early this month is part of a shopping plaza planned for the site of a former quarry, across the street from another shopping center and on a busy road between two highway exits. The location this time appears to leave little reason to object to the project, aside from philosophical objections to the retail chain.

Mia Perron says Wal-Mart’s low wages, the use of sweatshops and the effect on local businesses are among the reasons she doesn’t want one of its stores in Westbrook, where she’s lived with her husband since 2009.

But none of that comes under the purview of the Westbrook Planning Board, whose approval of the plaza’s site plan is all the retailer needs.


Still, Perron, 31, plans to present the board with a petition she posted on as a way to collect the comments she’d been reading on social media from people who share her sentiment.

“Wal-Mart is not the type of business we want in our town,” she said.

So far, the national retailer is the only tenant going into Dirigo Plaza that has been named.

City Planner Jennie Francheschi believes several others, including restaurants, will make announcements before the public hearing on the project to be held in June or July.

Wal-Mart’s announcement dashed the hopes of many residents who had heard rumors about a Costco or Market Basket coming to the site and were excited to see something different. Wal-Mart has three locations within 15 miles of the proposed plaza — in Falmouth, Scarborough and Windham.

“I agree it would be nice to have something that doesn’t already exist in the area,” said City Administrator Jerre Bryant. “But it’s a private property and the market determines who comes here.”


The Planning Board is reviewing the proposed 500,000-square-foot shopping center. It would be built on Main Street across from Westbrook Crossing, a plaza anchored by Kohl’s department store and owned by Pike Industries, which operated a quarry there.

Jeffrey Gove, developer of Dirigo Plaza, has said that having Wal-Mart doesn’t preclude other rumored tenants from moving into the plaza. A site plan shows space for another large retail tenant about the same size as the proposed Wal-Mart.

A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the store will be an asset for the city.

“We’re proud of the contributions we’ll make in Westbrook – from creating hundreds of jobs to helping customers save and contributing to local nonprofits. By joining the many businesses that will make up the plaza, we’ll be a part of turning an old quarry site into a retail destination that will generate local tax revenue,” said Phillip Keene, regional director of corporate communications for Wal-Mart. He said feedback from the community includes people looking forward to shopping at the discount department store.

Wal-Mart is no stranger to opposition. In the past year alone, groups from Pennsylvania to Utah have fought proposals to build stores in their communities.

Around the same time as the first Westbrook proposal 13 years ago, residents of Damariscotta voted to cap the size of retail stores at 35,000 square feet, shattering Wal-Mart’s plans for a store in the midcoast town.


Several other Greater Portland communities welcomed Wal-Mart stores without a public outcry. Theo Holtwijk, the director of long-range planning and economic development in Falmouth, said when a Wal-Mart came to that town in 1998, it replaced a vacant Kmart building and made improvements to property around it.

“I think it makes a difference to a community if you have a brand new development,” he said. “It may trigger more reaction.”

The opposition to the Westbrook Wal-Mart isn’t overwhelming. In addition to Perron’s petition, which had 46 supporters as of Friday, an opponent created a Facebook page called “Westbrook Citizens (Hoping for Better) Against Walmart.” The page had 11 members as of Friday.

However, it wasn’t until a couple of months after Wal-Mart came forward last time that Westbrook Our Home, the opposition group, became a known entity.

The group fought fiercely against a zone change Wal-Mart needed in order to build its proposed 200,000-square-foot store on the site of the departing Saunders Bros. dowel mill on Forest Street.

Although the City Council approved the change from an industrial to a commercial zone, further restrictions limited the size of the store to 160,000 square feet, as well as its operating hours and noise levels.


About three years after making its proposal, then placing full-page newspaper ads and fighting a lawsuit, Wal-Mart backed away.

Because no zone change is needed this time, the Planning Board is the only body that has to approve the project and it can only reject the plaza proposal based on land use laws – not a tenant’s business practices.

The only mechanism for preventing the store from moving in would be to change the zoning ordinance, either through the City Council or a referendum, so that it prohibits big-box stores, Bryant said. But that would also mean banning the other larger retailers that residents said they wanted.

Also, he said, because the project is already under review, the change would have to be made retroactively – something the city’s legal counsel believes wouldn’t hold up to a court challenge.

So even though Westbrook residents have a winning record against Wal-Mart, they’re coming into this round as the underdog.


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