Walmart waits as Falmouth council considers retail limit

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council on Dec. 13 will consider limiting the size of new retail developments.

In the process, it may risk losing a major Route 1 retailer.

A proposed zoning change would limit single occupants to a footprint of 75,000 square feet and multiple-business complexes to a footprint of 120,000 square feet.

The change was proposed by the Community Development Committee, a council subcommittee, as part of its discussion of a 2005 Route 1 study.

The proposal comes on the heels of Walmart’s announcement that it hopes to expand into the Regal Cinemas space at the Falmouth Plaza shopping center.

“We’re not real far along in the process,” Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said. “We’re waiting to see how that Dec. 13 meeting goes before we go too far.”

Wertz said Walmart would definitely move forward with its plans to expand if the town rejects the 75,000-square-foot limit. However, if the town does approve the restriction, Wertz indicated the company may look elsewhere to expand.

“That would be smaller than the existing building,” Wertz said. “Obviously, we would be constrained and would have to look at our options.”

The company has been working with the owners of the building, Falmouth resident Ben Devine and Middle Deer Associates, and intends to take over the cinema space as soon as the theater vacates, a date that has not yet been announced.

Representatives of Regal Cinemas did not respond to a request for comment.

The existing Walmart store is just over 84,000 square feet. The company has proposed razing the theater and rebuilding in the same footprint to add 34,000 square feet. According to Wertz, the new building would likely include a full grocery store and possibly a Subway or McDonald’s restaurant. In addition, Walmart has proposed a 6,000 square-foot outdoor garden center.

“That would be bigger than I want to see,” Councilor Bonny Rodden, the CDC chairwoman, said. “I do worry about what impact that would have on the other garden centers in Falmouth.”

The existing ordinance would allow this development with Planning Board site plan approval. Even if Walmart obtains approval, if the council amends the ordinance, the company could be required to meet the new standards unless it has already started construction.

“I don’t want the perception that we’re changing the rules about how we deal with business and property owners as they go through the process,” Councilor Will Armitage said. “It sends the wrong message to the business community.”

Armitage said he would not be opposed to limiting future construction to the CDC’s proposed footprints, but did not want to see existing businesses held to that standard.

Devine, meanwhile, warned that Walmart is serious about possibly leaving Falmouth if it can’t expand.

“I developed a Walmart in Rockland. The building is the same size as the Falmouth Walmart. Physically, it could not expand because of wetlands and the zoning,” Devine said. “So they’re relocating four miles away in Thomaston.”

Devine said the company has not indicated it would definitely leave town if an ordinance change were to pass, but that it had already looked in to possible spaces for a new building in Westbrook.

He said allowing Walmart to expand in Falmouth would guarantee the company’s long-term presence at a time when large retail spaces, such as the former Shaw’s Supermarket building on Route 1, have remained empty for years at a time. He added that the Regal Cinemas space would be very difficult to fill.

“What you see in these types of spaces are low-price markets like Mattress Giant or Marden’s,” he said.

Rodden said it is unlikely the council will move quickly enough to stop Walmart from expanding, however that she’d still like to see the size limitations put into place so future buildings would be limited in their footprint.

“We’re trying to shape our community,” Rodden said. “It’s important for the council to take charge of the development of the town, rather than leaving it all to the developer. We need to be proactive.”

Representatives from Walmart have indicated they may attend the Dec. 13 meeting. The council will take public comment on the ordinance change at the beginning of the meeting.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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