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2008-03-23
Monroe, N.J. Three Residents Sue Mayor, Town Board To Block Wal-Mart

Mayor Mike Gabbianelli of Monroe township, New Jersey, is the kind of Mayor Wal-Mart loves. Gabbianelli was elected Mayor of this town of roughly 32,000 people in 2003. Before running for Mayor, he served in the township's police department for 25 years. In his first inaugural address, the Mayor uttered what he calls his "legacy and battle cry": "This Township is open for business." As someone who also owns a construction company, his sympathies naturally lie with developers. His first platform issue as Mayor was "to attract new ratables." One of those "new ratables" that attracted the Mayor was Wal-Mart. Monroe already has 9 Wal-Marts within 20 miles, including a superstore 8 miles north in Turnersville, New Jersey. In his State of the Municipality Address in January, 2008, the Mayor said, "Five years ago, builders, investors and the commercial industry were skeptical about doing business in Monroe. Today, commercial developers are negotiating to bring national retail chains and industry to Monroe... In 2008, the township will take a giant step forward in commercial development. Walmart (sic) is expected to come before the Planning Board this month for site approvals." But when the township Planning Board voted to approve the superstore, instead of a "giant step forward," all the Mayor got was a giant lawsuit from his own residents. According to the Courier Post newspaper, three taxpayers in Williamstown, which is an unincorporated place within Monroe township, have filed a suit in Superior Court in an attempt to block the proposed 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. The project would be located along the Black Horse Pike and New Brooklyn Road. The citizen's lawsuit charges that "certain members of the board, including Mayor Gabbianelli, were biased and predisposed to granting the developer the relief which it requested." The lawsuit, which was filed by Attorney Jeff Baron of Voorhees, New Jersey, seeks to overturn a series of ordinances and resolutions that were adopted merely to allow this project to proceed. The three plaintiffs, Phyliss Gibson, Michael Poponi, and Joseph Rumpf seek to nullify the township's approvals that were given to Wal-Mart's developer, Penn Real Estate Group of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in January. In addition to the Wal-Mart superstore, there would be eight other retail buildings, and a bank. The lawsuit charges that the township made "multiple procedural errors," and that the township planning board considered testimony from the developer's professionals without giving the board or the members of the audience a chance to question them. The suit also claims there was an illegal off-the-record conversation between the Planning Board and the board's professionals. "There were no procedural errors," Planning Board's lawyer told the Courier Post. "We were very careful to make sure everything would be done the way it needed to be done." The plaintiffs also say that the Mayor was "biased and predisposed" to approving the project. Mayor Gabbianelli sat as one of 9 members on the Planning Board that approved the Wal-Mart proposal. The lawsuit says that the Mayor should have stepped down from the Planning Board and not voted, because of his efforts to promote the project as Mayor. The Planning Board's lawyer re-inforced the problem by responding, "The mayor has been working on this for at least five years. This development is going to trigger all kinds of development coming into town." The legal brief says "the board's actions in this regard were arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and contrary to law," which is standard boilerplate for such lawsuits.

What you can do: The newspaper repeated the statistic that the Wal-Mart shopping center would create "400 or more jobs" in the township, despite the lack of any hard evidence to support that claim, which was forwarded by the developer and Wal-Mart. The fact is, this supercenter is a replacement store for some of the existing Wal-Mart discount stores that dot the area. The retailer is closing down all its discount stores, and replacing them with the larger, more profitable, supercenters. Instead of "creating" hundreds of new jobs, these supercenters are predominately shifting them from other merchants -- including other Wal-Mart locations. One of the major stores that will take a hit is the Wal-Mart supercenter in Turnersville, also on the Black Horse Pike. The Monroe store will cannibalize the Turnersville store -- a practice that Wal-Mart has been criticized for by stock analysts on Wall Street. The Mayor's "new ratables" will be offset by the township's cost of policing the store, and maintaining fire protection. Wal-Mart makes nothing, it simply brings cheap Chinese products to Monroe -- a service that many of its existing stores already provide. This supercenter will eat into the market share of existing grocery stores, putting several under, and leaving lost jobs, and blighted property. But the Mayor will be able to proclaim a "giant step forward." But not until he can dispose of the lawsuit his own constituents brought against him for his compromised dual role as an advocate for a project, and as its judge. Readers are urged to email the Mayor at: mgabbianelli@monroetownshipnj.org, with the following message: "Mr. Mayor, another Wal-Mart on the Black Horse Pike is not a 'giant step forward' for Monroe. In fact, your ratables will see little bounce from this project, once you subtract the cost of crime to your township. As a former police Lieutenant, you should investigate these costs in other towns in your area. Furthermore, your role as judge and jury in this case was inappropriate. It's fine for you to be the project's major cheerleader, but then you should have recused yourself from the Planning Board, and not taken part in the discussions. You may think "national chain stores" are worth talking about in your State of the Municipality speech, but in fact this is not a form of economic development that you will be remembered for. This is just sprawl development, which violates every principle of Smart Growth that New Jersey says it wants to promote. The original Indians who settled the Williamstown area called it Squankum, or "place where the evil spirits meet." Perhaps you should refer to this project as The Squankum Wal-Mart."










 
 
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