DAMARISCOTTA – Wal-Mart’s plan to build a 186,000-square-foot supercenter within two miles of Damariscotta’s historic red-brick downtown was thwarted by opponents’ weapon of choice: citizen-approved zoning changes.

The grassroots campaign that started here spread like wildfire along Maine’s midcoast as three neighboring towns adopted similar measures. But Wal-Mart foes failed in Waldoboro and Wiscasset.

Despite its success, a group called Our Town that was created to fight Wal-Mart across the region isn’t letting down its guard.

“Big box stores have a regional impact. It makes no sense to try to fight it in just one town,” said Eleanor Kinney, a spokeswoman for Our Town.

Maine provides an example of how Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is hitting speed bumps in its strategy to “fill the gaps” in places where it doesn’t already have stores. It plans to add more than 300 stores this year alone in the United States.

At day’s end, however, sporadic opposition in Maine and other parts of the country won’t prevent the giant discounter from achieving its growth goals, analysts say.

It all started in Damariscotta, 50 miles from Portland, where activists set a 35,000-square-foot limit on new retail development to discourage “big box” stores and sprawl.

Voters in neighboring Newcastle soon approved a similar size cap. To the south, Edgecomb followed suit and to the north, Nobleboro imposed a moratorium on large commercial buildings.

Wal-Mart applauded the outcome of a June referendum in which Waldoboro rejected a 45,000 square foot cap, but said it has no plans either there or in Wiscasset, where a proposed moratorium on stores bigger than 40,000 square feet went down to defeat.

Wal-Mart stores range from an average of 101,000 square feet for a discount store to 185,000 square feet for a supercenter.

“Wal-Mart views the recent votes as a positive sign that residents, consumers and citizens alike do in fact want economic development and greater choices with respect to where they shop,” company spokesman Christopher Buchanan said.

In Damariscotta, size cap proponents framed their campaign as an effort to preserve the character of the town of 2,000 which boasts an attractive downtown lined with shops, restaurants, art galleries and boutiques.

After their victory in March, organizers made it plain that keeping the discounter out of Damariscotta was not enough.

“Big box development is a bad economic deal for Maine,” Kinney said. “Dollars leave the state, local businesses are displaced and the whole unique character of Maine is at risk.”

Our Town groups with similar agendas sprung up in other midcoast towns along U.S. 1, the state’s main coastal route, but the referendum campaign was particularly spirited in Waldoboro, the largest town in Lincoln County. Waldoboro, with a sizable blue-collar constituency, had seen its largest employer, a Sylvania light bulb filament plant, shut down last year as jobs were outsourced to the Czech Republic.

Darrell Goldrup, who led the campaign against the size cap, said he remains indifferent about Wal-Mart but believes it made no sense to eliminate an economic development option that could prove beneficial.

“What drove my passion is that we lacked a vision, lacked a plan, lacked goals for our town,” he said.

Similar battles are taking place around the country, where Wal-Mart opponents are going to even greater extremes than in Maine.

In California, for example, the San Francisco suburb of Hercules seized land by eminent domain to keep Wal-Mart out.

Motivations for resistance to the discounter are varied, ranging from worries about the impact on mom and pop stores to issues involving health care and union representation, said Bernie Sosnick, a retail analyst with New York-based Oppenheimer & Co.

“Opponents think Wal-Mart is the source of all evil, that it underpays its workers, that it abuses workers,” said Sosnick, who dismisses such claims as illogical.

Longtime Wal-Mart foe and anti-sprawl activist Al Norman of Greenfield, Mass., said use of dimensional limits has become a standard zoning procedure for towns concerned about out-of-scale development.

“You didn’t have to do this years ago. But you didn’t have developers coming to small communities proposing stores that are three or four times the size of a football field,” said Norman, who has worked with Our Town. “But this is the new reality. You have to set limits.”

The talk of size caps comes at a time when Wal-Mart is in the midst of a plan to add more than 1,500 stores in the years ahead to the 3,200 it already operates in the U.S.

The retailer opened 341 stores last year and is on target to add between 335 and 370 this year. New construction focuses on supercenters, which combine a full grocery section with the general merchandise found in Wal-Mart’s discount stores.

Maine was among the last of the states to attract Wal-Mart, but the chain now has 22 stores, 12 of them supercenters. The company also has three Sam’s Clubs and a new regional distribution center in Lewiston.

Wal-Mart maintains a supercenter would expand Lincoln County’s tax base, generate about 400 jobs and lower prices for groceries and basic merchandise.

Kinney, of Our Town, said her organization is not about to fade away now that the flurry of referendums has ended and plans for a Wal-Mart could surface along the midcoast at any time. “We’re all sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said.

During this “quiet period,” Kinney said, Our Town activists have developed a citizen network that reaches across the state.

For most Americans, though, the benefits of Wal-Mart seem to outweigh problems.

It’s easy for people to say they don’t want the traffic and other issues associated with Wal-Mart “but on the other side of that coin is there are 100 million people a week saying ‘This is where we want to go to get our everyday goods,”‘ said John Lawrence, a retail analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co. in Memphis.

Meanwhile, those communities that reject Wal-Mart risk losing customers who will travel to other communities not only to shop at Wal-Mart but at other stores that tend to crop up in retail hubs surrounding supercenters, Sosnick said.

Sosnick recently visited Charlotte, N.C., where a new store is being built five miles from an existing Wal-Mart.

Consumers, he noted, have the final say.

“Shoppers are voting,” he said.

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