Home Depot drops effort to build in rural Talbot

Big-box retailers facing opposition nationwide

April 22, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Not everyone thinks bigger is better, as Home Depot Inc. has discovered to its chagrin.

In Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, many people thought an expansive home improvement store with voluminous parking wouldn't fit in with the rural setting.

After several years of community protests, legal challenges and more recent political opposition, the company finally threw in the towel. Residents and the landowner said yesterday that Home Depot has decided to stop appealing county decisions that blocked construction just outside Easton.

It's a storyline that the purveyors of big-box retail are getting to know well. In some communities with enticing locations but less-than-receptive residents, the box chains have, with increasing frequency, been losing fights to get a foothold.

Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters, a Massachusetts-based group that helps residents battle the big boxes, said he counts at least 221 communities nationwide that have kept a superstore out:

"Every week there are more reports of victories coming in. These battles are virtually as omnipresent as Wal-Mart. ... Goliath can be tripped up."

The fights are about traffic, the environment, small-town character, the fate of little shops, development on the fringes as downtowns fade - every one is a little bit different.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gave up in Kent County in 2001, after nearly a decade of legal wrangling, when the planning commission rejected its proposal because officials worried that an operation of that scale would shut many local businesses.

"We couldn't understand where they thought we were going to get the population to support a store of that size," said Chestertown Mayor Margo G. Bailey, noting that there are already three Wal-Marts in driving distance of tiny Kent County.

"It never made any sense."

Wal-Mart was also stymied in Hagerstown that year when a Circuit Court judge upheld a decision keeping it from adding a second superstore to the Washington County landscape.

Lowe's Cos. Inc., which has a store in Easton, has been trying for several years to build a larger store outside town, near the scuttled Home Depot site. Residents oppose the Lowe's project for the same reasons they fought Home Depot.

In a stunning election upset, residents in 2002 voted out Talbot County Council members who changed zoning rules to allow home improvement stores in the areas in which the two companies wanted to build. The new council enacted size restrictions to keep large retail out of those unincorporated, rural districts.

David Ward, president of H&R Retail Inc. in Timonium, which represents many big-box retailers looking for sites in the Baltimore-Washington area, said he has seen more and more resistance from residents, politicians and local businesses in the past few years.

This week Prince William County in Virginia changed the rules to require "special exception" approval for big boxes, he said.

"You can't do it by right, where you could yesterday," he said. "In many cases - in a lot of places nationwide - the primary goal is to keep Super Wal-Mart out. But there's a lot of people over 80,000 square feet this applies to by default."

Ward thinks more battles are popping up in part because an increasing number of big boxes are being proposed. "But there's still a tremendous need for these developments from a customer/consumer need standpoint," he said.

Some residents say their beef isn't with the big boxes but where they want to locate.

Attorney Tom Alspach, president of the Talbot Preservation Alliance, said the Home Depot and Lowe's sites were inappropriate in the unincorporated part of the county, which doesn't have public water and sewer. He worried about traffic and also can't see the need for two large home improvement stores in the same small county.

The town of Easton has signaled interest in allowing Lowe's to expand on its current property within the municipality, and Alspach said his group isn't opposed to that.

"The majority of the people in the county - and the majority of our County Council - feel that such large buildings should not be strewn out over the countryside," said Hope R. Harrington, vice president of the Talbot County Council. "I think what the trend has been is these stores just keep getting larger and larger and they sort of overwhelm everything around them."

Don Harrison, a Home Depot spokesman, said he's not familiar with the Talbot County site but "we don't like to go where we're not wanted, obviously."

"The onus is on Home Depot to show that we can blend in," he said. "These communities have worked really hard to achieve the kind of look or achieve the kind of lifestyle that they want. It's not that they don't want Home Depot - in many cases they just don't want Home Depot at this particular location."

Some towns dead-set against a big-box store have been won over when the company promised to change its architecture to fit the area and explained its strategy of volunteering in and donating to the community, Harrison said.

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