AUGUSTA, Maine — Business groups and the LePage administration are targeting a four-year-old law that requires communities to consider the economic impact of “big-box” stores such as Wal-Mart before issuing a local permit.
Enacted in 2007, the Informed Growth Act was championed by supporters as a way to protect Maine’s downtown business districts and local stores from the effects of large-scale retail developments such as Wal-Mart, Target or Home Depot. The law applies to proposed businesses with a gross floor area of 75,000 square feet or more.
But critics contend the law runs counter to Maine’s tradition of local control and preempts towns’ ability to decide for themselves whether a big-box store is appropriate for their area.
On Wednesday, lawmakers heard testimony on a bill, LD 322, to repeal the Informed Growth Act, which Gov. Paul LePage also has listed among his priorities for reforming Maine’s regulatory environment.
Bill sponsor Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, argued Wednesday that the law is inherently biased against larger retail operations.
“In fact, all of the 11 criteria one way or another seem to be pre-targeting any retail developer to fail the analysis, which I might add would stop the development regardless of whether the town or people want to build,” Clark said.
“We as a government are telling communities what we think is best for them, which apparently is that all large retail stores are bad for the economy and should not be built,” Clark said.
Dan Billings, chief legal counsel to the governor, said the law goes beyond seeking information because it requires towns to reject a permit application if just a few of the criteria are not met, regardless of the municipality’s own ordinances.
“What we are talking about is a review of local development,” Billings said. “Traditionally, we have left those decisions to the local communities.”
Among the criteria required by the economic impact study are: number and location of existing retail establishments where there is overlap of goods and services; projected net job creation and loss as a result of the development; and impacts on local roads, utilities and emergency service providers.
But supporters of the Informed Growth Act pressed for evidence that the act has blocked development projects or scared away potential businesses, suggesting instead that the economic downturn likely has had a major impact on the rate of new development.
Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that promotes “environmentally sound and equitable community development,” said that before the act’s passage, many town planning boards were unable to consider how a big-box store would affect jobs and small businesses in town.
Albie Davis of Thomaston said the Informed Growth Act is an invaluable tool for her small town, which Wal-Mart is eyeing as the site for a 150,000-square-foot Super Wal-Mart.
Davis said many Thomaston residents are not necessarily opposed to the retailer opening in town. They simply want to hear the right answers from the developer, and the law can help get those answers.
“We need to negotiate with the biggest corporation in the world, so that is one big issue for why we need this,” Davis said.
But Tyler said in his region of the state, Wal-Mart and other big-box stores actually can help the local economy by drawing Canadians across the border to shop.
“They don’t just go to Wal-Mart and leave,” Tyler said. “They shop and buy gas at our stores. They go to our restaurants.”