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Wal-Mart vs. Alameda County.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has sued Alameda County and its board of supervisors over their adoption last month of a ban on superstores.

Wal-Mart claims that the restrictions placed on what retailers can sell in their large-format stores punishes consumers.

In addition, the company charges in its petition to the Alameda County Superior Court that the enactment of the ordinance violates a slew of state laws.

In its legal action, Wal-Mart asked the court to block the ordinance from taking effect on February 6 and to deem it invalid.

"This ordinance is anticompetitive and anticonsumer," a Wal-Mart spokeswoman says. "The consumers of Alameda--our customers--deserve the right to choose where they are allowed to shop."

In early January Alameda County became the fourth government body in Northern California to pass a ban on the construction of so-called big-box stores, following the lead of the cities of Oakland and Martinez and Contra Costa County, which agreed to similar prohibitions last year.

Wal-Mart contends that Alameda County supervisors overstepped their authority "by enacting a law that imposes unusual and unnecessary restrictions on lawful business enterprises" and failed to follow state-mandated procedures in enacting the ordinance.

Under Alameda County's proposal retailers with 100,000 square feet of floor space are limited to selling such nontaxable items as groceries and prescription drugs in no more than 10% of the store.

Wal-Mart's current Supercenter prototype devotes significantly more space to these merchandise areas.

Late last month the company opened its first 99,000-square-foot Supercenter, a format that could eventually be used to get around the Alameda County law.

"Wal-Mart believes in choice," its spokeswoman affirms in decrying the supervisors' action. "It is a value that we believe most consumers embrace."

She says the company believes that Alameda County supervisors have colluded with other grocery chains and labor unions to prevent the company from entering the markets in the area.

"Some may not choose to shop at our stores, but neither do most want a board of supervisors, union representatives or competitors to tell them they can't," the spokeswoman contends.

Wal-Mart's ire comes from statements made by one Alameda supervisor that she had been working with a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers and a Safeway Inc. executive "for more than five months."

Wal-Mart contends that the passing of the Alameda County ordinance and the proposals in Oakland and Contra Costa County were timed to coincide with the company's plans to expand its Supercenter business in California.

Alameda County supervisors say the ordinance does not target Wal-Mart and they feel confident that it will withstand a court challenge.

"I totally trust our legal people not to allow us to put something out there that isn't legal," board chairwoman Gail Steele recently told the Oakland Tribune. "I feel confident that we didn't act inappropriately."

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Date:Feb 9, 2004
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