Wal-Mart proposal includes Falmouth street overhaul

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FALMOUTH — A proposed expansion of Wal-Mart’s garden center will be the subject of a public hearing at the Town Council’s next regular meeting, Wednesday, April 16.

The proposal also comes with a $525,000 plan to revamp Hat Trick Drive.

Joan Fortin, an attorney representing Wal-Mart, said the retailer hopes to expand its outdoor garden center on U.S. Route 1, but current zoning laws prohibit the expansion. In fact, current zoning prohibits Wal-Mart from operating the garden center as it has done in the past.

Wal-Mart’s pickle dates back to a now-scuttled plan to expand the 92,000-square-foot store at 206 Route 1 into a 124,000-square-foot Supercenter.

Wal-Mart had received permits in 2010 to expand and move the garden center to the northern side of the building; however, between receiving those approvals and cancelling the plans, the zoning for the area changed, and the big-box retailer was left with nothing grandfathered-in for its garden center.

For the past three years, Wal-Mart sought and received temporary approval to operate the outdoor sales. Now, the retailer hopes to make it permanent.

“Basically, Wal-Mart would like to do the same thing that it’s been doing for many years,” Fortin told the council during an introductory presentation last month.

Wal-Mart’s plan includes a larger area for outside sales, “enhanced landscaping” on Clearwater and Hat Trick drives, pedestrian walkways and lighting on Clearwater Drive, plus an outside storage area for pallets, which would be screened from view with decorative fencing.

Amanda Stearns, Falmouth’s community development director, said a zoning exception isn’t allowable in this case, per town ordinance.

“The only mechanism is to change the zoning,” she said.

The proposed expansion project could also include substantial improvements to Hat Trick Drive – part of a long-percolating plan between Wal-Mart, the owner of the property that Wal-Mart leases, and the town, according to Town Manager Nathan Poore.

That project, which is estimated to cost $525,000, would transform Hat Trick Drive from the alleyway it is now into a road that will “look and feel no differently than a regular public road,” Poore said.

The cost of the project would be split equally among the three parties; the town share would be $175,000. The plan includes construction of two travel lanes; bicycle-and-pedestrian accommodations, including a sidewalk; pedestrian-scale lighting; landscaping; grass esplanades areas, and 30 perpendicular parking spaces facing Family Ice, Poore said.

Poore said the project is in the town’s interest because Falmouth will receive public easement rights, “making it not quite a town way, but the public will have the right to travel over it” as a means to drive from store to store without re-entering Route 1. The plan also includes maintenance agreements between the three parties.

Councilor Karen Farber said she’s in favor of granting the zoning change and revamping the road.

“I’m not seeing any problems with this,” she said. “It could only be an improvement over what currently exists.”

Councilor Dave Goldberg echoed that assessment and said the proposal is “very much in line with Route 1 improvements.”

Councilor Russ Anderson also offered his support

“The vast majority of it will be privately funded,” Anderson said. “It looks to me like a terrific deal all around.”

Wal-Mart’s original expansion plan would have required tearing down the former Regal Cinemas, which closed in April 2012 in anticipation of the expansion. The expanded box store would have included a full grocery store, pharmacy and large garden section.

The former theater remains vacant.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.