hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2014


Big box is back

In a town that said no to Wal-Mart, the retailer tries again


Contributing writer


For the town of Ballston, it’s 2004 all over again.

Back then, the town was in an uproar over Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a massive new superstore along Route 50, just outside the village of Ballston Spa.

Although supporters at the time touted the store’s potential economic benefits, opponents said it would create a new web of traffic and sprawl while devastating the revitalization of downtown Ballston Spa. The store’s opponents successfully pushed the town to adopt new, tougher development rules, including a cap on retail store sizes that effectively blocked Wal-Mart’s plans.

Today, however, Wal-Mart is back, with a new proposal for a somewhat smaller store (137,000 square feet, compared with the 180,000 square feet originally proposed) on the same property just south of the village line.

The polarizing debate is back too. Lawn signs opposing Wal-Mart, and some supporting it, line the streets of Ballston Spa, and town officials choose their words carefully when discussing the subject.

The basic arguments are familiar. Wal-Mart’s proponents say the store would boost the local economy, providing new jobs and tax revenue, while offering the convenience of more local shopping options – including a grocery store, which the town currently lacks. Opponents say a store of Wal-Mart’s size will harm locally owned businesses, lower the average wages for retail workers, and become a magnet for traffic and crime.

The store’s opponents have been organizing for a replay of a battle they thought they had won nearly a decade ago.

“From 2004 to 2006, the town decisively and clearly rejected a big-box form of development,” said Ben Baskin, one of the leaders of the grassroots group Smart Growth Ballston.

The group says public opinion is still on its side. Smart Growth Ballston recently sponsored two mail surveys – one a random sampling of 2,000 local registered voters, the other of 284 local business owners. In both groups, more than 65 percent of respondents said they favored “smart growth,” which the survey defined as mixed-use development like what already exists in Ballston Spa, with a maximum building size of 60,000 square feet. When specifically asked about the current Wal-Mart proposal, a majority in both survey groups said the town should stop the project.

But what happens next will be up to the town Planning Board, which late last month gave itself lead agency status to review the project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Although that review focuses mainly on the project’s environmental impacts, the board can consider public opinion and social and economic considerations, including quality-of-life issues.
The board has scheduled a public hearing as part of a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, on the Wal-Mart project.


Capping store sizes
Ballston, a town of nearly 10,000 in the middle of fast-growing Saratoga County, isn’t the only community in the region that has attempted to thwart Wal-Mart’s plans by limiting store sizes.
In Bennington, Vt., the town Select Board adopted a bylaw a decade ago that capped the size of new retail stores at 75,000 square feet – a move that threatened a developer’s proposal to more than double the size of an existing 52,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store, one of the chain’s smallest. But local voters overturned the bylaw in a referendum. Today, the expanded Wal-Mart in Bennington has cleared all of its regulatory and legal challenges but has yet to be built.
In Ballston, Wal-Mart’s original proposal in 2004 called for a 180,000-square-foot store – a size that later ballooned to 203,000 square feet. But the retailer’s plans were halted when the Town Board imposed a moratorium on new commercial development while it updated the town’s master plan.

The result was a new town comprehensive plan, completed in 2006, that appeared to ban big-box stores by limiting the size of retail buildings. As part of the planning process, the town surveyed 1,500 property owners and registered voters, a majority of who said they favored having only “small-scale” retail operations in a mixed-use development pattern, interspersed with housing. Only 11 percent of the survey respondents said they wanted to see “large-scale commercial” development in Ballston.

The changes to the town’s development rules meant the property where Wal-Mart wanted to build, near the intersection of routes 50 and 67 that’s known locally as the “V corners,” was rezoned from commercial to mixed-use development.

Still, in 2010, the owner of the property where Wal-Mart wants to build, Frank Rossi, applied to create a “planned unit development district” on his 75-acre property. The designation, approved by the town in 2011, allows up to 137,000 square feet of retail space plus additional space for offices.

Patti Southworth, a Democrat who served as town supervisor from 2008 through 2013, said that at the time Rossi’s development district was approved, there was an expectation that some of the retail space might be developed as a grocery store, something she said the town needs. It seemed unlikely that a big-box department store like Wal-Mart would come in, she said.

“There was some discussion about that, and it’s always a possibility, but I really didn’t think that it would happen given the contentiousness in the community, the size restriction, and because we’re not a 24-hour community,” Southworth said.

Southworth added that she does not shop at Wal-Mart and is not a fan of the company’s business practices.

“I think overall the board thought that it would bring in a grocery store,” she said of the town’s approval of the new development district. “I had discussions at the time with a grocery chain who wanted it shovel-ready.”

Although the process of approving the new district took 18 months, she said, “truthfully, there wasn’t a lot of public input at the time.”

Baskin, of Smart Growth Ballston, indicated he also had heard the town was trying to recruit a supermarket chain for the site.

“Town officials did put in an effort to find a supermarket, but I guess no supermarket was interested in setting up in that location,” he said.


Some see advantages
Not everyone is opposed to the idea of Wal-Mart coming to town.
Hillary Jones, one of more than 300 members of the Facebook page “Yes Wal-Mart Ballston Spa,” said she didn’t get involved in the Wal-Mart debate 10 years ago, although she is a lifelong resident of Ballston.

“But I was for them from the beginning,” Jones said. “I think it will be a great boost to the local economy and offer a lot of jobs that we desperately need.”

Opponents of the new store say people in Ballston who want to shop at Wal-Mart have plenty of options for doing so. Wal-Mart has at least 14 stores within a 35-mile radius, the nearest of which is about 10 miles up the Northway in Wilton, just outside Saratoga Springs. Stores in Clifton Park and Glenville are also within 15 miles.

But Jones said the proximity of other Wal-Mart stores doesn’t beat the convenience of having one right in Ballston.

“We need a grocery store here,” Jones said. “We have lot of folks who are less fortunate and with the price of gas, or maybe they don’t have a car, they just they can’t go up to Saratoga. The other thing is that by going to Clifton Park or going to Saratoga, we’re pouring money into Clifton Park and into Saratoga and not our own economy.”

Jones said her brother worked for Wal-Mart and was treated well. She sees some of the opponents’ arguments as elitist.

“I don’t believe Wal-Mart is the evil entity out to destroy local business,” Jones said. “There are items the local shops sell that the national retailer doesn’t, so it shouldn’t affect the smaller stores. I think it’s a class thing. If this was Target, nobody would bat an eye. They think Wal-Mart is lower class.”


Shifting retail strategy
The proposed Ballston store would include a grocery department with a deli and bakery, as well as a drive-through pharmacy. The site is behind a McDonald’s, and two automotive service centers, a gas station, a Dunkin’ Donuts store and a Stewart’s Shop sit along the main road nearby.

Wal-Mart spokesman William Wertz said the store would create 300 full- and part-time jobs. He said the company has responded to the community by proposing a smaller-sized building than it initially offered a decade ago.

Wertz said Wal-Mart would prohibit overnight parking by recreational vehicles, which is allowed at some of its stores, in Ballston. After the permit and approval process in completed, it takes about one year to open a store, he said.

As for the proximity to existing Wal-Mart stores, he said it sometimes makes sense to have the stores fairly close together. A half-hour to the north, the town of Queensbury has two Wal-Marts within a few miles of each other.

“We’re always looking for an opportunity to build a new store,” Wertz said. “It’s not uncommon to have a Wal-Mart near other Wal-Marts. It may be 10 or 15 minutes away, but our customers tell us they prefer to have one close to home. They would like to see one where they live.”

The smaller-format store proposed for Ballston also suits the current Wal-Mart philosophy. Although U.S. sales at Wal-Mart stores open at least one year fell 0.6 percent in the year ending Jan. 31, sales at the company’s smaller “neighborhood” markets rose 5 percent, according to a February report in The Wall Street Journal. With traffic at large-scale stores reduced by the shift to online shopping and competition from dollar stores, the company said it would accelerate spending on its online presence and smaller-format stores to reflect the change in shoppers’ habits.


Choking on traffic?
Smart Growth Ballston argues bringing in a big-box store will harm existing businesses, discourage new locally owned enterprises and lead to an increase in crime and traffic.
“Route 50, which is the main road going through the village, is not built for this kind of traffic,” Baskin said.

He also said that his group’s opposition relates mainly to the size of the proposed store, not to Wal-Mart specifically.

“If it was smaller, if it was a 40,000-square-foot supermarket like they made in Niskayuna, that would be great, and all the opposition would go away,” he said.

As for crime, a study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Criminology looked at annual crime rates in more than 3,000 U.S. counties in the 1990s, when Wal-Mart was expanding rapidly. The study, titled “The Wal-Mart effect on crime in the United States,” concluded that while crime rates fell nationwide during the period, they fell more slowly in areas where Wal-Mart expanded.

The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, which has two existing Wal-Mart stores in its coverage area, has not conducted its own study on specifically related to the retailer, a department spokesman said.

The Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association, which represents business and residential interests in Ballston Spa and the surrounding area, sent a letter to Ballston Planning Board Chairman Richard Doyle urging the town to create a safer traffic plan if the Wal-Mart is built.

“While our members have varying opinions on the benefits of large-scale commercial retail development, we have discovered common ground among them in that all are extremely concerned about the likely increase of traffic new development will create in an already dangerously congested area, which is precarious for both motorists and pedestrians,” the group’s letter states.

Ballston is already facing increased traffic on its roads because of the ongoing development of the GlobalFoundries computer chip manufacturing complex in the neighboring town of Malta.
Malta Supervisor Paul Sausville said that regardless of whether Wal-Mart comes in, the county might want to explore its options for increasing road capacity in the area.

“We have a real good north-south route, but an inadequate one east-west,” Sausville said.
Sausville said he hasn’t heard much feedback from people in his own town about the proposed Wal-Mart.

“It’s not in the town, so people aren’t speaking an awful lot about it,” he said. “You go through Ballston and you see the sign wars, but people will not see the impact until something like that is built.”

Ballston Supervisor Patrick Ziegler said he’s heard from townspeople on both sides and that opponents have been more vocal than supporters. But he said one side being more vocal doesn’t necessarily show what the majority of the town’s residents are thinking.

Smart Growth Ballston contends that the town’s 2011 designation of the Wal-Mart site as a “planned unit development district,” or PUDD, has expired.

“What we’re arguing is there is a three-year time limit for a PUDD, within which substantial progress has to be made in the construction of that development,” Baskin said. “We’re asserting there’s not been substantial progress made, and therefore the PUDD has expired. And if that’s the case, then it does have to go back to the Town Board to look at it again. I think if the Town Board were able to vote on this, it wouldn’t pass.”

Doyle, the Planning Board chairman, said the board’s review process is likely to lengthy – with no decision until sometime in 2015.

“This will take a while,” he said. “It’s a tedious process. A month or two is not a great amount of time. If I had to guess, it [a decision] would be in the new year.”