Hawthorne, NJ. Citizens Respond to Wal-Mart Grocery With a Lawsuit
Angry residents of Hawthorne, New Jersey have decided to take legal action to try to block a Wal-Mart grocery store that they don't want.
The Group "Hawthorne Deserves Better" has stated their case on a website. "We are dedicated to the idea that the Wal-Mart Supermarket coming to Hawthorne, NJ is a poor fit for our community. We value small business, and Wal-Mart hurts small business. We value hard work, we feel that Wal-Mart does not treat its workers as well as they should. We value our safety, we feel a 24 hour Wal-Mart will increase crime and burden our police officers. We value our homes, we believe the Wal-Mart brand will lower our property values and the viability of our downtown business district. We believe Hawthorne deserves better than Wal-Mart."
According to The Record newspaper, area residents Scott Mitchell, William Botto and the group Hawthorne Deserves Better Inc., have filed a lawsuit in Superior Court to block approval given by the Hawthorne Planning Board roughly 6 months ago. Local officials consented to a 42,000 s.f. supermarket plus 10,000 s.f. additional retail space as proposed by the developer, 204 Wagaraw Road LLC. The first court meeting between the plaintiffs and the defendants is slated for July 6th.
Hawthorne is a borough of roughly 18,000 people. This site would be the first Neighborhood Market for Wal-Mart in New Jersey, where many of the retailer's prior proposals have been hotly contested by local citizen groups and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Hawthorne Deserves Better Inc. has been planting lawn signs around the community, and has gathered more than 1,000 names against the project on a petition. Wal-Mart had not publicly acknowleged that it would lease the space during any of the borough hearings.
According to the citizens' group, the land in question is known as the old Merck site, once home to an industrial plant owned by the drug manufacturer, Merck & Co. The land has been empty for roughly 8 years. Over the years a number of projects have been proposed for the site, including a train station, townhouses, a Kohls department store and a Home Depot.
The current developer picked up the property in 2008, was negotiating a contract with Kohl's department store, but the widening recession killed the deal. It was not until the spring of 2011 that rumors of a grocery store were confirmed. The developer would not reveal who the tenant was, cited a confidentiality agreement.
In the fall of 2011, the Hawthorne Planning Board changed the borough's zoning code to allows grocery stores, drugstores and restaurants to remain open all night, instead of having to shut down at 11 pm, and open at 6 am. This change was made to accommodate the developer, who said the retail tenant interested in the Merck site needed to conduct 24 hour operations. The borough council also voted to endorse the zoning change, and just before Christmas of 2011, the supermarket proposal was also approved by the council .
One month later, Passaic County's Planning Board ratified the supermarket plans, with no retail tenant named. One board member objected to the plan, citing the potential impact of the project on an already congested county roadway. In February of 2012, the project was back before the Hawthorne planning board for final passage, and local residents spoke out against the plan once again. Hawthorne Mayor Richard Goldberg let the retailer out of the bag at that meeting, admitting that it was a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. Hizzoner was quoted as saying at the time, "Can I tell you I'm thrilled it's a Wal-Mart? No, I'm not thrilled it's a Wal-Mart." The Council ultimately approved the 24/7 Wal-Mart project.
What you can do: According to Hawthorne Deserves Better, the lawsuit filed by residents "addresses a wide range of actions involving the proposal including conditional use variances granted to the developers by the planning board, the design of the site plan and the alleged failure to give adequate public notice with the proper list of variances or waivers to the residents.
"If not for our efforts," the group says, "we would still not know it was Wal-Mart coming to Hawthorne. They know that communities react with disapproval to Wal-Mart locating in their town, so they keep the Wal-Mart name off the project as long as possible... We need to help our elected officials understand that the community they serve does not want a Wal-Mart here so they can find a solution."
Readers are urged to email Hawthorne Borough President John Bertollo at email@example.com, with the following message:
Dear President Bertollo,
Using the old Merck site for a retail grocery store clearly will never produce the economic benefits to the borough that a manufacturing plant could do. The borough should never have 'down-zoned' the property for retail use. An industrial site should never be converted to retail -- the pay off is just not there.
In this case, Wal-Mart already has 7 stores within 15 miles of Hawthorne, so local residents do not have to travel far to get their fix of cheap, Chinese imports. You have a Wal-Mart less than six miles away in Saddle Brook, so this is not about being a 'food desert.'
This project is not a form of economic development, because Wal-Mart thrives by taking market share away from existing merchants. No new jobs will result from this store, and the Council should never have granted 24 hour operations that disrupt the lives of people who live near the site. Wal-Mart has plenty of stores that are not open around the clock.
At this point, the borough should tell Wal-Mart that local taxpayers will not be asked to pay one penny defending against the citizen lawsuit. Let Wal-Mart pay the full financial cost of defending the permit they want. You have many residents who have spoken out against this plan. Don't make them pay to protect the world's largest retailer. "