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Adjacent Wal-Marts May Dodge Size Curbs

Last month, plans for the first Wal-Mart in New York were scrapped after intense opposition from several City Council members and congressional representatives. In November, Montgomery passed tough zoning regulations on big-box stores. Prince William set a maximum size for stores last April. Alexandria requires special permission for retail outlets larger than 20,000 square feet.

Wal-Mart has grown increasingly resilient when faced with such restrictions. In Inglewood, Calif., the company tried to circumvent the City Council's rejection of its 130,000-square-foot superstore by putting a measure before voters that would have exempted the company from the city's zoning and environmental laws. It was rejected last April by 60 percent of voters.

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In Tampa last year, Wal-Mart opened a 99,000-square-foot Supercenter prototype designed to come in just below the 100,000-square-foot size caps imposed by cities and counties across the country.

Masten concedes that splitting a store into side-by-side parts may not be the most cost-effective or consumer-friendly design, but she said it is the best way to serve Dunkirk customers in light of the regulations. "This makes more sense than having the general merchandise store on one side of town and the garden center on the other side," she said.

Opponents charge that Wal-Mart is concerned less with customers than with a profit-centered approach that disregards community desires.

"They will try any tactic that they think they can get away with," said Al Norman, 58, founder of Sprawl-Busters, a Massachusetts-based group that helps communities fight big-box stores. "I've adopted the attitude with Wal-Mart that having a clear intent in your ordinances doesn't mean anything with them."

The tenacity of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in its march across the American landscape has helped make it the nation's biggest company. The retailer, which rang up more than $288 billion in sales last year, has 1,353 regular Wal-Mart stores in the United States and 1,713 Supercenters, which sell grocery items.

In Calvert, a once-rural outpost transforming into a bustling bedroom community, there is widespread fear that a Wal-Mart in Dunkirk could shatter the county's quiet. Residents worry that the store would draw shoppers from neighboring Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, further clogging the county's only major highway and turning Calvert into a bustling retail hub for the region.

Gottlieb said she worries that Wal-Mart will continue adding stores to its Dunkirk complex. "Wal-Mart will no doubt continue adding 'modules,' until they have the auto repair center and food store they'd originally planned, and Calvert County will have a sprawling, ugly, megaplex of 'Wadules,' " she wrote in a letter to the county commissioners.

About 50 members of Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth turned up Feb. 23 at the planning board's usually sparse meeting. Clutching handmade signs with such messages as "Rules are rules!!" they urged the board not to allow Wal-Mart to sidestep the regulations.

Yvonne Remz, 49, who moved to Dunkirk three years ago, testified that her hometown of St. Mary's, Pa., had been devastated since the opening of a Wal-Mart. Family friends lost jobs, small businesses closed and the social fabric of her community began to fray, she said.

"I don't have a downtown St. Mary's anymore," she said with a slight break in her voice.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation highlighted the threat big-box retailers pose for rural areas when it placed the state of Vermont on its annual list of endangered sites last year. The group said stores such as Wal-Mart drain tightknit communities of their unique character and contribute to the homogenization of American life.

That's why Cornelia Poudrier, the founder of Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth, said she would work relentlessly to keep Wal-Mart from exploiting the apparent loophole in the county regulations.

"This could ruin the county forever," she said. "We're fighting to preserve our way of life."

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