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Wareham Wal-Mart move stirs residents’ concerns

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2011

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Residents and officials in Wareham are worried that Wal-Mart’s plan to close its Cranberry Plaza store and build a supercenter across town will result in more empty storefronts on the town’s east side and fewer trees and heavier traffic on the west.

The switch of location is being driven by the retail giant’s decision to also sell groceries at its venue. Wal-Mart’s deed at the plaza prohibits the sale of groceries because Stop & Shop is next door. The proposal for the new Wal-Mart is being considered by the town’s planning and zoning boards.

Wal-Mart would not be the first retailer to move from east to west in this coastal town, abandoning the 40-year-old plaza on an old route to the Cape for an up-and-coming commercial center anchored by Wareham Crossing, which has better access to major thoroughfares. And the ongoing exodus has some officials concerned.

“A T.J. Maxx, Staples, Payless Shoes, and Friendly’s have all moved from that plaza to Wareham Crossing in West Wareham,’’ said Selectwoman Brenda Eckstrom. “The east side of town is starting to look pretty bleak. It’s disturbing.’’

A Wal-Mart spokesman said his company has to meet customer demand. “Our customers at the current store, along with our own market research, clearly shows there is a desire and need for this proposal,’’ Christopher Buchanan said in an e-mail.

The proposed 160,000-square-foot store, targeted for the corner of Tobey Road and Cranberry Highway and just across the street from the Wareham Crossing mall, will continue to employ its 200 current workers and add about 85 more, Buchanan said.

But some west side residents say the new supercenter will add traffic to an already busy area and further endanger the Eastern box turtles that live in the area, as 26 acres of pristine woodland would be covered with the building and a large parking lot.

“The area they are proposing for the store is an area that has been undisturbed, and they plan to clear away every single tree,’’ Kathy Pappalardo, who attended the opening hearing on the proposal earlier this month, said last week. She said the site is rich with wildlife, including wild turkeys and the endangered box turtle.

“People are looking at it and saying they will save money on groceries, rather than looking at what it will do to the wildlife,’’ Pappalardo said. “I served on the West Wareham strategic planning committee, and we said, ‘No box stores.’ ’’

Pappalardo said data gathered by the town planner show that Tobey Road and Cranberry Highway fall just short of the state’s designation as an area with a high accident rate. “I live there and travel down Tobey Road every day, and the traffic is already heavy,’’ she said. “We didn’t want the mall, but we got that anyway.’’

Mack Phinney, who lives on the West Wareham property his family has owned since 1778, also expressed dismay at the retailer’s plan. “When I was a kid, there were 350 acres of woods here,’’ he said. The Wareham Crossing mall opened in 2007 and brought attention to the area, which had been historically rural.

Phinney said his chief concern is environmental. “This property is bounded by a stream that is headwaters for the Weweantic River, which flows to Buzzards Bay,’’ he said. “The building will add nitrogen to the stream system and eventually to the bay.’’

Phinney said several residents have come to him expressing their support for his opposition to the project.

“But most don’t feel comfortable speaking at the hearings,’’ he said, adding there is no organized group fighting the project. “Wal-Mart comes to the meetings with all their lawyers, and there’s just us. We have come from home and have no lawyers to speak for us.’’

George Barrett, chairman of the Planning Board, agrees Wal-Mart’s proposed move across town isn’t ideal for Wareham. “A lot of people would like to see them stay where they are, but their deed won’t let them sell groceries,’’ he said. “But for East Wareham, once Wal-Mart leaves, it’s going to leave a big hole. There’s the fear others will follow.’’

Cranberry Plaza, built in the 1970s, is only about 5 miles from the West Wareham location that is drawing so much commercial interest. “There, routes 495, 25, 195, and 28 all converge,’’ Barrett said.

The first hearing on Wal-Mart’s proposal drew only a smattering of residents. But that’s expected to change.

“I think there will be a surge of attendance as this thing heats up,’’ Barrett said. “Wareham Crossing was a big change for the west area, but I think most people are happy with how it turned out. I just hope we can mitigate this project with Wal-Mart.’’

The next hearing before the town planning and zoning boards is set for Feb. 15.

Buchanan said Wal-Mart will help make sure its Cranberry Plaza store doesn’t remain empty.

“We will proactively and aggressively work with [the town] with respect to finding another use for our current store,’’ he said. “This is very simply the right thing to do as a good corporate citizen.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.