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Town Seeks Comments On Controversial Walmart Plan

Lucas Willard

Opponents and supporters of a planned Walmart store in Saratoga County packed into a public hearing Tuesday night.

The debate over a Ballston Walmart has stretched on for more than a decade, and inside a stuffy gymnasium on a muggy July night, hundreds gathered to share their opinions with the Town Planning Board. People on both sides of the issue wore stickers and waved signs similar to those seen on front lawns dotting the community for years.

Earlier in July, the Planning Board moved the proposed store at the corner of Routes 50 and 67 forward by issuing a negative declaration regarding the store's potential environmental impacts.

Tuesday's hearing was part of a public comment period for site plan approval of the store.

The store would accomplish what many in the town and neighboring village of Ballston Spa see as a necessity: bringing a grocery store to the area.

Pat Palmer is a supporter.

"This would be a wonderful thing for us to be able to get our groceries, our prescriptions at a good price instead of being ripped off by the competitor grocery stores. Also, a lot of us still work, like myself, I'm 64 years old.  And some of my friends in their 70s still work. This would be a great place for us to be able to get a job for a few hours a day," said Palmer.

Walmart claims the new store would create 300 jobs.

Local resident Carrie Curvin, however, sees the promise of a grocery store a little differently.

"I think that grocery store would be great if Walmart were putting in one of its  40,000 community "Neighborhood Markets", I believe the format is called, I think most of us wouldn't be here today arguing about it. I think People would be very happy to have a grocery store on that site. But that's not what this is going to be. This is going to be huge."

The Walmart store would be built on land in a subdivided property zoned for big box development.  A new auto parts store and dollar store were recently built nearby.

Some opponents have predicted negative impacts on traffic and congestion in the neighboring village, while supporters say the store would bring convenience to people who don't drive.

Resident Lisa Speidell urged the planning board to continue working with neighboring homeowners and to encourage developers to reduce impact on green space.

"Motor vehicles, including non-road vehicles, now account for 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions nationwide. In addition to maintaining the current vegetation, require the developers to create more green space via a park, recreational trail, et cetera, to reclaim the space that will be lost due to all the blacktop. Again, health and safety are important to all of us."

Tensions ran high among audience members. Some shifted in their seats, there were whispered arguments.

Supporter Hillary Jones complained to the Planning Board.

"Frankly, I don't want to get personal here, but I think the opposition views - not all of them, but I think a lot of them - are tinged with elitism. Every time they say that when Walmart comes in we're suddenly going to be overrun with crime. What I hear them say is 'we don't want poor people.'"

One of the major issues throughout the debate over the years has been the potential impact on small businesses, which the Village of Ballston Spa has worked hard to strengthen.

With the debate continuing loudly inside the gymnasium, Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said the retailer would not compete with existing business in the village.

"When you think about it, in an area like Ballston and Ballston Spa, we don't compete against very many of those businesses. When you look at the antique stores and the spas and the other specialty businesses, we think that a Walmart in the area would be an enhancement to the their business because it would bring in additional traffic."

The public has until August 5th to submit comments to the town Planning Board over the proposed store.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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