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2008-10-09
Riverhead, NY. Court Nixes Town Approval of Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart suffered another legal setback this week on Long Island. Newsday reports that the town of Riverhead, New York -- which already has a Wal-Mart discount store on Old Country Road -- has had its approval of a Wal-Mart supercenter overturned. The giant retailer wanted to build a 169,548 sf. store on Route 58, which would have been the first supercenter on crowded Long Island. Despite approval by the Riverhead Town Board, local residents refused to take 'yes' for an answer, and threw the case into court. On October 6th, Judge Thomas F. Whelan of the Suffolk County Supreme Court tossed out the Town Board's approval. The judge ruled that Wal-Mart's site plan violated the town's zoning code, and the town's comprehensive plan. According to the court, the Town Board did not have the discretion to give Wal-Mart variances from the zoning restrictions. "The Town Board, in its role as site plan administrator, cannot approve site plan applications that run counter to the Town Law, its Comprehensive Plan, and its own zoning code," Judge Whelan wrote. "One of the most cherished principles of our democracy is the respect and deference accorded our governing laws by our citizenry. Town Boards are not exempt from that fundamental ideal." Two lawsuits had been filed against Riverhead and Wal-Mart in the wake of town approval in June of 2007. The owner of a shopping center on Route 58 and Riverhead residents filed the lawsuits. The plaintiffs were pleased with the outcome of their court battle. "It's a rational, sound, well-written decision," said James Gaughran, the attorney who filed the appeal on behalf of Riverhead residents. "I think it will be difficult for them to overturn on appeal." Wal-Mart issued its standard disclaimer in such cases, noting that the real losers in this battle were Wal-Mart customers. "We are obviously disappointed in the decision," Wal-Mart told the media. "Our customers in the area were very much looking forward to shopping in the upgraded Wal-Mart store that was planned for Riverhead. In addition, the project would have created about 100 construction jobs during that phase of the project, as well as about 100 additional permanent jobs at the store, when construction was complete." The claim of 100 "additional" jobs is a gross figure, not a net figure, because Wal-Mart never admits that its superstore would have caused a loss of employment at other grocery stores in the area. There's a Waldbaum's supermarket on Old Country Road near the existing Wal-Mart for example, and a Stop & Shop, also on Old Country Road. The Town Board gave Wal-Mart variances for zoning laws around landscaping, parking and building standards. The board also approved the supestore site plan in a zoning district which does not permit single, freestanding stores. "He [Judge Whelan] rejected the town board's attempt to take jurisdiction from its zoning board and transfer it to itself," a land use attorney told Newsday. "This case stands as a guide post to other towns and villages looking to take power from their zoning boards."

What you can do: The courts generally don't like to substitute their judgement for that of local town boards when interpreting their local ordinance, but in this case it was readily apparent that the zoning code for this site on Route 58 did not allow freestanding stores. However, if the citizens in town, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, had not challenged the town's action, a Wal-Mart supercenter in Riverhead would have been open for business today. Instead the project has sunk to the bottom of the river. Readers are urged to email Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale by going to: http://philcardinale.com/contactus.html and sending the following message: "Dear Supervisor Cardinale, I am so pleased that the Town Board's efforts to circumvent the Riverhead zoning rules have been overturned by the courts. That leaves you with only one Wal-Mart left -- which should be more than adequate for the 34,000 people who live in your town. You also have 5 existing Wal-Marts within 25 miles of town. The fact is, this Wal-Mart proposal would not have created new jobs and revenues, but simply taken sales from stores like Waldbaum's and Stop & Shop. This is a game of retail musical chairs. Riverhead would do better to put a cap on the size of retail stores, and prevent this kind of controversial proposal from dividing your community again."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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