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HALIFAX

Stop & Shop says Wal-Mart work is illegal

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / April 16, 2009
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Call it the high-stakes food fight that won't end.

In the latest installment of a war between two giant chains that has been waged sporadically in this tiny town over the last eight years, Stop & Shop is demanding that Halifax's building inspector shut down a massive interior renovation of a Wal-Mart located next door to its store at the intersection of Routes 106 and 58.

Stop & Shop attorney George McLaughlin says that Wal-Mart has violated state law as well as a handful of local bylaws with its renovation, and that it should be held accountable. The town has sided with Wal-Mart so far, with Building Inspector Tom Millias declaring late last week that the permit for renovation he issued to the retail giant is valid and the company is in compliance.

But that's just one step in an appeal process initiated by Stop & Shop that could well wind up in court. And it is an other round in the ongoing fight between the two chains that apparently is driven by competition - although neither side is willing to concede the obvious.

Wal-Mart has operated its outlet in Halifax since 1998. The 104,000-square-foot store offers a wide variety of items but little in the way of food. Last month Wal-Mart closed the store to gut and reconfigure the interior space, intending to change its offerings when it reopens to include a full line of groceries including meat, fruit, vegetables, and deli items.

Christopher Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the retailer is not concerned about competition from the neighboring Stop & Shop. Nor is it worried about the grocery chain's complaint.

"Wal-Mart is confident that the building permit was validly issued, and we are proceeding with our store renovation," Buchanan said.

On the other side, Stop & Shop spokeswoman Faith Weiner said her company's actions stem from a desire to make certain Wal-Mart's renovation is done right. "We would ask any abutter whose change in use would impact us to go through the proper procedures," Weiner said. "That is why we are pursuing our appellate rights."

In his letter to Millias asking the building inspector to stop the renovation, McLaughlin cited a bylaw that requires a special permit from the Planning Board for any commercial building larger than 5,000 square feet. He said Wal-Mart never secured that special permit when it applied for its building permit in 1997.

McLaughlin further questioned whether the project met the letter of state law, which requires a company expanding or changing an already "non-conforming use" to go back to the permitting authority for review.

"You should order the ongoing work at the Wal-Mart property to cease" until the retailer secures that permission from the Planning Board and until all appeals have been fully settled in its favor, he argued.

In an interview, Millias said the special-permit bylaw was enacted after the Wal-Mart in Halifax was built, so the store enjoys a grandfathered status.

Weiner said her company plans to take the issue to the next level, the Zoning Board of Appeals. "We disagree and feel that proper procedure was not followed," she said.

Millias said most people in town are not reacting well to Stop & Shop's tactics. "The feedback I've been receiving from people in town is very negative toward Stop & Shop," he said.

The two chains have been mixing it up in Halifax for years. In 2001, representatives from both retailers approached the town, within a month of each other, with plans for grocery operations. At the time, Halifax had no grocery store.

Stop & Shop proposed a smaller grocery story than it eventually built in 2004, and Wal-Mart talked about expanding its existing store in Halifax to a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Wal-Mart's plan, company officials told the Planning Board, required the purchase of some property behind its building. The targeted parcels were purchased quietly a short time later for $1.6 million, but not by Wal-Mart. The deed states the owner is Halifax Farms Realty LLC.

Stop & Shop officials have denied a connection to the purchase, but when one of the properties was sold in 2003, it carried a deed restriction preventing it from being sold or leased any time in the next 30 years for a "supercenter" or for any purpose related to a supercenter-type store. The deed states the restriction was put in place to benefit Stop & Shop.

Wal-Mart abandoned its expansion plan in 2001, but returned with another threat of competition just days before Stop & Shop was set to open its store in 2004. Wal-Mart announced plans to build a supercenter, which would include buying several parcels on another side of its property.

But the retailer eventually abandoned that plan as well. "We simply made a business decision not to pursue it at the time," Wal-Mart spokesman Buchanan said.

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