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Town Has Wal-Mart Leap-Frogging to Open Store

August 29, 1993

WESTFORD, Mass. (AP) _ Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has begun its move into New England, and the giant retailer built by Sam Walton has come prepared - to tread lightly when necessary.

The chain even agreed to station a biologist at one construction site to monitor migrating frogs every day and make sure they can hop unimpeded to a breeding pond.

″It’s probably a little bit unusual,″ said Bryan Bakis, project manager for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. of Watertown, Mass., Wal-Mart’s developer.

There’s a reason for this interest in amphibians, and it isn’t science. In Westford, a rural town northwest of Boston, 4,000 residents have signed petitions opposing the store, mirroring resistance Wal-Mart has seen in other communities during its push into the Northeast.

″It is an invasion,″ said Elizabeth Michaud, wearing a bright red t-shirt emblazoned with the words ″Stop Wal-Mart.″

Michaud, who led the petition drive, says the store would accelerate the commercialization of Westford, turning the quiet town into a regional shopping hub with more traffic, noise and crime.

Wal-Mart officials say the company is misunderstood, and that residents and consumers generally welcome a store once they become more familiar with it.

″Fear of the unknown is a tremendous thing,″ said Don Shinkle, a spokesman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain.

Less than 20 miles from Westford in the town of Hudson, Wal-Mart got a fairly enthusiastic response when it opened a new store earlier this year.

″From a consumer’s point of view, there just wasn’t a store close by that offered the kinds of goods and services that Wal-Mart does,″ said Paul Blazar, the town’s executive assistant.

Anticipating hostility from local merchants aware of tales of small stores being driven out of business, the Hudson Chamber of Commerce organized a seminar on survival strategies. But not many people showed up.

″There doesn’t seem to be the sense that they will be eaten up and spit out,″ said Bob Fecteau, president of the chamber.

Back in Westford, population 16,400, a different message is heard from merchants bracing for Wal-Mart.

″It could bury me,″ said Don Paul, owner of the Shoe Tree, which sits in a strip mall along the same highway where the Wal-Mart could be built.

Construction is expected to begin next year if Wal-Mart gets the necessary permits. Opponents hope to persuade the town Planning Board to reject the project, citing a law that requires new development to fit ″harmoniously″ with the surrounding town.

A potentially powerful obstacle that critics are trying to throw in Wal- Mart’s way can be found along the back edge of the site, hidden in a cluster of trees, ferns and shrubs.

It’s a small pool of murky water that serves as a breeding ground for wood frogs.

Local regulations say such pools must be protected, and Wal-Mart has changed its plans to provide a buffer zone of trees and maintain a normal level of storm drainage into the pool.

But it doesn’t end there. Tentatively, the developer also has agreed to station a biologist at the construction site to help the frogs make their pilgrimage to the pond.

A fence erected next to the construction site would block the frogs from the pond. But under one option, traps would catch the frogs, and each day workers would lift the animals above the fence and set them on their way.

″I think that’s probably a unique aspect of this project,″ said Bakis. ″We have to do more than probably any developer has ever done in the town of Westford in dealing with environmental issues.″

The local newspaper, the Westford Eagle, poked fun at the situation, running an editorial cartoon showing frogs hopping around a Wal-Mart biologist. ″Tadpole heaven,″ one of them croaks.

32EDT