Thomaston residents who attended a select board meeting Monday night said they felt they had been sideswiped when they heard the news that Walmart might put a superstore on Route 1 in Thomaston, next to Dorman's Dairy Dream.

The Town Said Yes to Big Box Stores in 2006

The surprise was four years late. Thomaston voters had their say on May 16, 2006, when they approved a zoning ordinance that allows for single retail stores with a building size of up to 150,000 square feet. That cleared the way for a Super Walmart or any other large big-box retailer that meets the zoning requirements.

About 50 people attended the meeting Monday night, including some from surrounding towns. Many expressed surprise and outrage at the proposed development in a meeting that quickly spun out of control into a free-for-all, with select board members interrupting each other and the public interrupting the town planner and the select board chairman.

Thomaston Town Manager Val Blastow said if the proposal meets the zoning requirements, there is no need for voter approval for the development to move forward.

And Walmart is clearly interested.

"Walmart has made a commitment, but it's contingent on many things. I'd rather not go into detail about what those are," said Scott Shapiro, the developer for Greely Associates, which holds a development option on the property at 193 New County Road (Route 1) in Thomaston. Walmart is not the developer; they would be a tenant.

"I will say this: because of the economic situation in the country, we have to keep looking at the economics of this," said Shapiro. "Constantly."

The site is zoned for a 150,000-square-foot retail store, which is small for a Super Walmart - they tend to be 185,000 square feet. However, smaller Super Walmarts are currently opening. For example, a 148,722- square-foot store (including a grocery and bakery, pharmacy, general merchandise, lawn and garden center, digital services center, vision center, and a Subway restaurant) opened in North Carolina last week, according to Walmart Corporate.

The site also has approval for smaller stores and a restaurant.

The road to approval for a development at the Thomaston site is long, but likely.

Shapiro said permit approval of a big-box store like Walmart, which is known in development circles as an anchor store, will attract other stores and a restaurant because of the traffic flow. He has no plans to recruit other stores until the permits for a big-box are approved.

"No one wants to do anything until there is an anchor store," said Shapiro. "Once there is, other tenants will come."

The proposed development will go through an extensive application process with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection; the Army Corps of Engineers will get involved with any water, wetland, or wastewater issues.

The Maine Department of Transportation conducted a traffic study and approved a permit within the past three years, according to Steve Landry, a traffic engineer for the Maine DOT. That permit is valid unless the proposed development will bring more than 100 vehicles an hour during the peak travel hour of the day. If the proposed Walmart will xceed that volume of traffic, a new traffic study - traffic studies look at the impact of traffic flow to and from a site on different routes - and permit will be required, said Landry.

Dorman's Dairy Dream, owned by Janice Cross, has been part of the discussion, too; the property, or part of it, would provide an entranceway to the big-box development, and Shapiro and Cross have been in contact for some time.

"I have no comments about Dorman's at this time," said Shapiro. "Janice has been hounded with questions from the public and she's tired of it."

DEP Approval Could Take a Year

Shapiro predicts the application process for the DEP, which includes a public meeting with abutters and concerned citizens, will take at least eight months to complete. Citizens will be able to weigh in with concerns at the public meeting, which may influence the development but are unlikely to stop it or radically change its size or location.

"The permitting will not be complete this year," said Shapiro.

Eric Ham, who is the Maine Department of Environmental Protection project manager for the Thomaston site, summarized what will be required of Greely Associates in order to file a complete application with the department.

"They were not ready to apply when we met with them in August," said Ham, who recommended that Greely Associates have a second pre-application meeting prior to submitting a proposal for approval.

Ham summarized the list of requirements for the developer.

"They will need a site location permit from the DEP that includes legal and natural resources information," said Ham.

The list of permit application requirements includes: the developer must prove they have enough money to complete the project and the technical ability to do so; they must address construction noise, visual quality, fisheries and wildlife impacts, historic and natural areas impacts, visual buffers, the impacts of blasting, air emissions, odor, water vapor; they must have a construction debris removal plan; and most problematic, they must address water issues, including whether the development is over an aquifer, water supply, wastewater disposal, wetlands impacts and storm water management.

One of the large hurdles for that particular site will be effective storm water management, according to Ham. It is particularly important because of its proximity to the Weskeag Marsh, he said. The marsh provides important nursery habitat for marine species and critical migratory habitat for shorebirds.

If there are impacts on wetlands, then the developer must present a mitigation plan and bear the cost of mitigation, said Ham.

Community Impacts Will Be Evaluated

The original site plan was approved before the state implemented the Informed Growth Act in 2007, according to Town Manager Blastow.

The Act requires towns that receive permit applications for large big-box stores (over 75,000 square feet) to determine whether the development would have an undue adverse impact on the local economy and community. If the town municipal authority-typically the planning board- decides that it would, the permit cannot be approved.

The decision is based on data and analysis conducted by an authorized Informed Growth Act consultant who is recommended by the state. The developer pays for the studies: there is no direct cost to the town.

The town (and the consultant) must consider economic factors, including the impact on local jobs, established businesses, the cost to the town for increased services, town revenue, and the environmental impact of the development. Abutting towns are also represented under the Act and can weigh in, since they, too, will be affected by the development.

According to Jody Harris, the designated contact at the Maine State Planning Office for the Informed Growth Act, it would be up to the town, guided by town ordinances and the town attorney, to decide if an existing site review plan would fall under the purview of the Act. Since the original site plan for the proposed Thomaston development was approved before the Act went into effect, the developer may not need to comply with the Act.

The town planning body would decide.

The Informed Growth Act may be state law, but the state has little involvement with it. The law was designed to turn control of land use decisions over to the towns, while providing a template for them to measure economic impact by. There is no state review process of the decisions made at the town level, according to Harris.

"This is all about local control of land use," said Harris. "It's up to the town to decide if an approved site plan is grandfathered or subject to the Informed Growth Act. Those are legal questions for the town attorney."

Harris' role is to collect the money from the developer, provide a list of consultants to the town, and pay the consultant. The state does not get involved in the legal application of the Act, said Harris, nor does it review the study.

Whether Thomaston decides to apply the Informed Growth Act to the development or not is probably moot. Shapiro of Greely Associates said that he intends to comply with the Informed Growth Act, whether a new site plan is needed or not.

"Sure, I know about the Informed Growth Act. We plan to do it, regardless," said Shapiro, noting that it is one of the things Walmart wants done if they are to occupy the site.

But Shapiro is puzzled over the vehemence directed at Walmart.

"This area is for development," said Shaprio. "I could see the opposition if it was years ago. It's a developed area now. If this had been Target, there wouldn't be the flak."

"Look at Lowe's," he said. "People didn't say anything about it when it was being built, and it was sinking. Do you know how many millions they were over budget? Unfortunately, Walmart gets it. There's a bias and I don't understand it."