'Rite Aid/Wrong Town' Appeal: In a struggle between community and corporation, who holds the trump card?

May 18, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

HENNIKER, N.H. -- For the midmorning coffee break, canoe maker Tom Seavey leaves his shop to join some friends at the century-old Henniker Pharmacy. He finds his seat at the oak-and-marble lunch counter, and he sips and he chats, savoring the daily bull session with his fellow townsfolk.

But lately Seavey and his friends worry their ritual might soon come to an end. They've been awaiting a judge's ruling that might clear the way for the Rite Aid Corp. to build a big, modern drugstore up the road.

"It's kind of like the threat of the rat race breathing down your neck," says Seavey, who set down roots in Henniker two decades ago. He shakes his head and says Rite Aid's buying-power and lower prices hold no lure for him. "You go killing the gathering spot, it's not worth it to me to save 18 cents on a pack of raisins. Big deal."

In big cities and sprawling suburbs, construction of a chain drugstore wouldn't be worth a shrug. But some people in Henniker, home to 4,100, say a new store here would drive the older pharmacy out of business and would rob their New Hampshire town of a large measure of its charm.

Rite Aid's interest prompted some residents to organize against what they saw as an arrogant corporation's invasion. Bumper stickers and lawn signs sprouted: "Rite Aid/Wrong Town."

Rite Aid says that the criticism is unfair and that its surveys show a quiet majority of residents favor its plan. Last month, it went to court to appeal the town planning board's rejection of its store design. Last week, both sides were anxiously awaiting a decision on Rite Aid's appeal.

Underlying the struggle between town and corporation is a clash between principles held dearly in this famously conservative state.

Who holds the trump card when the New Hampshire tradition of government at its most grass roots is played against an individual's property rights?

J. Albert Norton, a longtime resident who owns the wooded, commercially zoned property where the Rite Aid would be built, wants to finance his retirement by selling the land to the company.

Norton, a 69-year-old court security officer and former sheriff's deputy, says the most vocal opponents to the plan are neighbors who want no development at all on his property.

"They want to look at the trees I pay $4,600 a year in taxes on," he says angrily.

But Jack Bopp, chairman of an ad hoc committee fighting the Rite Aid proposal, says that two decades ago the town adopted zoning laws so it could determine its destiny -- and not have its fate dictated by outside forces such as Rite Aid.

"It was the good of the Henniker community vs. another pushpin on the map for the Rite Aid Corp. of Harrisburg, Pa.," he says of the fight. "A duly elected town body decided that that particular proposal did not meet the rules."

Betsy Davis, a resident since 1972, calls the debate "an awkward situation." She's not eager for chain stores in her town, but she sympathizes with the property owner and the drugstore chain.

After all, she says, "Our license plates say 'Live Free or Die.' "

Finding resistance

As national retail corporations seek to expand, they are frequently finding resistance on their new frontiers. Chains as large as Wal-Mart -- and as seemingly innocuous as Talbots, the women's clothier -- have met opposition as they've set out to tap new markets near highway interchanges and in venerable shopping districts.

The battle in Henniker differs from many protests against large, so-called "big-box" retail stores, which often seek to set up shop on the outskirts of a town or in areas already served by national chains. Henniker, a hamlet nestled in a rocky New England forest, has never had a chain store. Its bed-and-breakfast inns trade on the town's old-time ambience.

On the lot where the Rite Aid would be built, a sign greets drivers with the words, "Welcome to Henniker, the Only One on Earth." Longtime residents say no one has ever found another town with the same name.

Seventeen miles west of Concord, the state capital, Henniker is so small that its one traffic light is just a flashing signal. Tucked amid pine-covered hills, the town is home to New England College; many residents came to the small school and never left town.

It wasn't too many years ago, some recall, that the town magistrate still accepted payments of fines while pumping gas at his service station. And though many say that some small-town features have faded in the past 15 years, Henniker remains a place where one might see a moose ambling across a neighbor's yard.

In the heart of all this is the 109-year-old Henniker Pharmacy, a three-story clapboard building at the town's main intersection.

Pharmacy owner Joe Clement began working there as a boy and bought the store in 1965. It was remodeled a few years ago but still sports old-fashioned wood beams and a pressed tin ceiling.

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