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    Wal-Mart Fights Ban in California

    Mass merchandiser seeks to overturn ordinance against big-box grocery stores in unincorporated areas.

    WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. intends to keep putting pressure on the grocery category in California, challenging a measure that is preventing the company from selling groceries in the northern part of the state.

    Wal-Mart has begun gathering signatures in the hope of overturning a Contra Costa County ordinance barring super-size retail centers from opening full-service grocery stores in unincorporated areas. The firm will spend about $100,000 trying to qualify a referendum for the ballot, said Wal-Mart community affairs manager Amy Halley Hill. "It's a matter of principle," she told the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. "These types of ordinances are anti-competitive and anti-consumer, and we will fight them tooth and nail."

    The dispute mirrors battles throughout the country over retail giants. Supporters like the bargain prices and convenience. Opponents counter that those benefits often come at the expense of smaller retailers.

    County supervisors approved an ordinance June 3 that applies only to retailers with stores in excess of 90,000 square feet in unincorporated areas. It bans such super centers from devoting more than 5 percent of their floor space to the sale of non-taxable items such as groceries. The measure won strong backing from labor unions and social-justice groups. But Wal-Mart and other opponents accused county supervisors of interfering with the free market. The company must turn in 26,487 valid signatures by July 3 to qualify a referendum.

    County supervisors would then have the option of repealing the ordinance or placing it on the ballot, probably for the March 2004 election.

    Wal-Mart hired National Petition Management, a Sacramento-based firm, to gather the signatures. Although Wal-Mart has no plan at the present time to open a store in unincorporated Contra Costa County, the firm wants to keep its options open, Hill said.

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