SAN FRANCISCO - The town of Hercules, California, has upscale aspirations and its vision of the good life rules out a Wal-Mart store.
Similarly, three Maine towns are considering a "box-free" zone to prevent Wal-Mart from opening in an area of coastal New England known for its colonial charm, an idea mirroring wealthy and quaint Nantucket's recent ban on chain stores.
The city council of the mixed-race bedroom community of 23,000 east of San Francisco voted this week to invoke eminent domain to block Wal-Mart Stores Inc. from building a 99,000 square foot (9,200 sq meter) store near the town's waterfront.
The area is the centerpiece of Hercules' redevelopment effort, which aims to create a destination on par with high-end Sausalito across the bay. That would complement Hercules' plan to market itself as an "anti-suburb" with new neighborhoods appealing to home buyers nostalgic for old-fashioned residential areas within cities.
The unusual move stunned California's big-box retailers, who usually benefit from eminent domain, which allows government to take private property for its use or for use by third parties if their projects would benefit the public.
"To use eminent domain is such an abuse of the process," said Rex Hime, president of the California Business Properties Association, which represents large retailers.
"We've seen cities come up with land restrictions, we've seen cities come up with environmental restrictions, we've seen cities do any number of things ... but never going so far as to using eminent domain," Hime said. "This is the beginning of a very slippery slope ... Next year those laws could apply to Target, Home Depot, Lowe's; it just keeps right on going."
LOW PRICES, LOW INCOME
Wal-Mart is no stranger to hostility. In a garden variety instance of opposition fueled by union activism, officials in Oakland, California, another San Francisco Bay area city, had tried to bar big-box retailers altogether because Wal-Mart aimed to enter their market.
Wal-Mart faces a different and more confounding source of anger in Hercules -- a "class war," according to Roger Pilon, a legal affairs specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute.
"The people in Hercules are coming across as looking down their noses on those who shop at Wal-Mart, as not wanting 'those people in our neighborhood,'" Pilon said.
Wal-Mart opponents in Hercules say its presence would blight their town, the first in California with planning codes guided by "New Urbanism," a school of urban design focused on pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods mixed with homes and shops and lacking big-box retailers.
"It's the quality of living in Hercules that we're dealing with," said Steve Kirby, a Hercules resident since 1988. "One thing that we don't want is a regional-type business in there that brings in a lot of traffic."
To some in Hercules, Wal-Mart's low prices raise the prospect of low-income visitors from neighboring towns to the north, which have median family income levels well below that of Hercules, and southern neighbor San Pablo, a gritty blue-collar town.
"Hercules is a high-income enclave in a larger lower-income trade area that is currently underserved by retail activity," noted a 2005 analysis done for the town planners by Strategic Economics and Main Street Property Services.
Hercules residents opposed to Wal-Mart say they will press their fight even if the retailer scales down its store plan. Compromise is unlikely, Kirby said: "Now, forget it."
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Loscotoff declined to comment on the company's troubles in Hercules, but said the retailer is planning a legal challenge to the city council's action.
© Reuters 2006