Robin Gottlieb cringed when she learned of Wal-Mart's plans to build a store the size of three football fields near her home in Dunkirk, a cozy hamlet in Southern Maryland ringed by rolling tobacco fields. The 44-year-old librarian feared it would overwhelm her tightknit community and usher in even more development.
After intense lobbying from Gottlieb and her neighbors, Calvert County officials passed tough regulations last summer that limited the size of big-box stores in quaint town centers such as Dunkirk's. Gottlieb and her friends arranged to cheer the victory with celebratory drinks.
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But Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, appears to have hit upon a novel way around the rules: divide the store in two.
In what company officials are calling one of the first arrangements of its kind in the country, Wal-Mart plans to build a 74,998-square-foot store cheek by jowl with a 22,689-square-foot garden center. The two Wal-Marts -- each with its own entrance, utilities, bathrooms and cash registers -- would have a combined area 30 percent larger than the 75,000-square-foot limit for a single store in Dunkirk.
The tactic is the latest example of Wal-Mart's increasingly creative responses to the scores of jurisdictions, including Prince William and Montgomery counties, that have passed regulations limiting the size and location of big-box stores.
"It almost points out the futility of municipalities developing ordinances and laws that restrict the size of stores," said Kenneth E. Stone, professor emeritus of economics at Iowa State University, who has studied the company for 20 years. "There's always a way around them, and an outfit as big and smart as Wal-Mart will think of a way."
Mia Masten, community affairs manager for Wal-Mart's eastern region, said she believed the Dunkirk site would be the first time the Bentonville, Ark., company will build two side-by-side stores in response to size restrictions. It is a strategy that Wal-Mart is likely to consider in other areas, she said.
"As these big-box bills come up, all retailers will just have to be flexible," she said. "In this case, we developed a model that allowed us to reach our customers."
Wal-Mart has two dozen stores in the Washington region, all of them outside the Capital Beltway. Some communities, including the District, are courting the retailer for the jobs and tax revenue the giant store could bring.
But in this hamlet in Calvert, a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay, residents are incensed at what they consider Wal-Mart's blatant disregard for their wishes.
"They're like a slippery eel that won't be pinned down," said Gottlieb, a leader of Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth, which lobbied for the big-box ordinance and now is fighting Wal-Mart's newest proposal. "But we can't let them get away with this. It makes a mockery of our county."
Wal-Mart officials say there is nothing Calvert can do to prevent construction of the stores. Mark Davis, a lawyer for Charlotte-based Faison Enterprises, which is developing the Wal-Mart site, said the county can regulate only the size and nature of buildings. He said it would be illegal and discriminatory to create laws that regulate the owners of specific buildings.
Still, the county commissioners said Wal-Mart's plan violates the intent of the regulations. Last month, they asked the planning board to delay any action on the Dunkirk plan so the county attorney can evaluate possible options to stop the stores.
Calvert is hardly the first jurisdiction to try to block Wal-Mart from building in its community. Opposition to the company has mounted as organized labor -- increasingly threatened by non-unionized Wal-Mart's entry into the food sector -- has joined with preservationists and small-business owners to keep the retailer at bay.