Wellsville, NY. Citizens Win Slam-Dunk Against Wal-Mart In Court Battle
In September of 2007, Sprawl-Busters wrote the first of five stories about the village of Wellsville, New York’s battle against the adjacent Town of Wellsville over a proposed Wal-Mart superstore in the Town.
“Wellsville's tranquility has been upset by a proposal from Wal-Mart to come to the village.” Sprawl-Busters reported. “All it took was the huge shadow of a Wal-Mart to stimulate a citizen's group to form. This week, the Wellsville Citizens for Responsible Development organized a public forum on the Wal-Mart plan. Around 150 people showed up for the forum, according to the Wellsville Daily Reporter. One of the founders of WCRD told the group, "We are pro-economic development in Wellsville that is sustainable, responsible, environmentally sound and which will be compatible with a strong downtown. We need companies that pay a living wage with benefits and ones the will keep our young people here."
That was almost nine years ago. This week, the New York State Bar Association featured the results of the village’s prolonged court battle against Wal-Mart as its “case of the week.”
According to the Bar Association’s headline, the Town of Wellsville “Did Not Take the Requisite Hard Look at the Environmental Impact of the Construction of a Wal-Mart Store,” and the courts have overturned the town’s decision that the project would not have a negative impact on the community. “The Fourth Department held that the effects of the construction upon wildlife, community character and surface water were not adequately investigated: ‘We agree with petitioner . . . that the Town Board failed to take the requisite hard look at the impact of the project on wildlife, the community character of the Village, and surface water, and that the resolution adopting the negative declaration must therefore be annulled. ... Given the information received from the public that state-listed threatened species might be present on the project site and the failure of the Town Board to investigate the veracity of that information, we conclude that the Town Board…negative declaration with respect thereto was therefore arbitrary and capricious ... . [A] ‘... town . . . board reviewing a big box development should consider the impact of the development on the community character of a neighboring village that might suffer business displacement as a result of the approval of the big box development’... . ... [T]he Town Board erred in failing to consider the surface water impact of the entire project.”
On the subject of impact on the “community character” of the Village, the court wrote: “we note that SEQRA defines "environment" as "the physical conditions which will be affected by a proposed action, including . . . existing community or neighborhood character"…and "require[s] a lead agency to consider more than impacts upon the physical environment," including "the potential displacement of local residents and businesses”…Therefore, contrary to the Town Board's apparent conclusion, "[a] town . . . board reviewing a big box development should consider the impact of the development on the community character of a neighboring village that might suffer business displacement as a result of the approval of the big box development.” Because there is no evidence in the record before us that the Town Board even considered the impact of the project on the community character of the Village, we conclude that it failed to take a hard look at that impact, requiring annulment of the resolution adopting the negative declaration on that ground as well.
Here are excerpts from the victory story in Wellsville, written for Sprawl-Busters by citizen opponent Elaine Hardman:
“On June 17th the Supreme Court stated that the New York Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department, announced their ruling in the matter of Wellsville Citizens for Responsible Development versus the town of Wellsville, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, et al. The court ruled unanimously to annul the Wellsville Town Board’s negative declaration of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). .
The 5 judges found that the concerns expressed by the public (WCRD) were valid but were not addressed by the Town Board in granting the development project the right to proceed.
Here’s a little background. On August 13, 2014 the Wellsville Town Board stated that there were no matters to be resolved, thereby green lighting the proposed construction of a Wal-Mart along the former Airport Road in Wellsville. When there are no issues of concern, a lead agency (in this case the Wellsville Town Board) may issue a “negative declaration” stating that no further study is needed and the project may proceed. The Court annulled the Town Board's position, essentially saying insufficient study was done and that the negative declaration shall not stand.
The Appellate Division ruled on 4 substantive issues and determined that the Town Board was deficient in dealing with three of the issues. All issues dealt with local impacts. One was the impact of the proposal on wildlife. The second was the impact on the community character of the village and the third involved surface water. WCRD argued that the Town Board failed to take a “hard look” at those issues as required by the SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act).
In March of 2009 and again in 2014, WCRD provided information on wildlife including a five-month survey showing that several bird species described as "threatened" or "of special concern" by New York State were observed on the property. Wal-Mart and the Town Board ignored this information. The Court found that the Town Board's failure to investigate the "veracity of the information was "arbitrary and capricious".
The Court further found that the Town Board failed to comply with the SEQRA regulations in studying the potential impact of the Wal-Mart project on the "community character of the village of Wellsville".
The third issue dealt with surface water. In the ruling, the Court noted "because the surface water studies presented to the Town Board did not include an analysis of the potential surface water impact of the golf course reconstruction portion of the project, and the record does not demonstrate that the Town Board otherwise considered that impact, we conclude that the Town Board failed to undertake the requisite hard look at the potential surface water impact of the entire project.”
Parker McKay, attorney for WCRD said that the intent and focus of WCRD can be measured by several events including their action in 2008. They hired Gary Abraham, Environmental Attorney, to make a presentation to the Town Board about the complexities of the SEQRA process. He provided packets of instructional material for each board member and offered his services to assist them in negotiating the complicated process, which could be done at no cost to the Town Board.
McKay reacted to the Court’s ruling pointing out that WCRD has always tried to advise and assist the Town Board in the process in order to comply with the law and avoid conflicts. McKay said, “The citizens studied the process and issues seriously while working in the interest of the entire community of Wellsville over the last 10 years to be certain that the project would be done correctly. They remain committed to the task and feel that the unanimous decision validates their concerns and demonstrates that it has always been their intent to assist the Town Board in conducting a thorough review in this significant development project. WCRD voices a continued commitment and awaits the Town Board’s response."
What you can do: To learn more about this determined group of village residents who stood up to their neighboring Town, and to the world’s largest big box corporation, go to: