NAPANOCH – Since the news of the lawsuit filed against Walmart and the Town of Wawarsing broke a few weeks ago, some of the various people involved in the case have weighed in on the subject — and in some cases, have been asked to weigh in, and have refused. While lawsuits filed among corporations during the development phase are far from rare, this particular suit holds implications for the people who have come down strongly on one side of the debate or the other; namely, should Napanoch get its own Walmart retail store or not?
To offer a little background about this conflict, the suit has been filed by Shop-Rite Supermarkets, Incorporated, Wawarsing-Ellenville for Responsible Development (WERD), and Steve Krulick, an Ellenville resident who is co-petitioning in the case in addition to being the chairperson and most visible and outspoken member of WERD. The community-activist group has provided much criticism concerning Walmart's plans to build a retail store at the site of the Napanoch Valley Mall on Route 209, near Eastern Correctional Facility, and currently the home of several struggling stores and a few large, long-empty storefronts.
The filing seeks primarily to overturn the Wawarsing Planning Board's negative declaration issued at March's meeting, which expressed satisfaction with the application materials and environmental studies provided by Walmart. Such an event would force Walmart and its engineers to offer more in-depth study of the site and the proposed store, as well as to provide ways of mitigating whatever effects the store would cause.
"The reason for the filing…was really to bring attention to the procedural irregularities that were in the process applied in reviewing Walmart's application to build a store on that site," said Karen Meleta, the Vice President of Consumer and Corporate Communications of the Wakefern Food Corporation, the supermarket cooperative that supplies Shop-Rite stores with their product and store brand. "The planning board, it's our belief, did not conduct an adequate review of the potential adverse environmental impact that might occur as a result of the project." Meleta offered further reasons that the lawsuit has been brought by Shop-Rite Supermarkets, Inc. (the Florida, NY-based company that owns the Wawarsing Shop-Rite on Route 209, as well as an estimated 25 other store locations, according to the corporate spokeswoman).
"I think it's also important to note that Shop-Rite offers our associates good pay and generous benefits. Those benefits, because they're union employees, there's no cost to them. And many of them are long-term employees, so we certainly have that interest in mind as well. We do not want jobs in the community to be lost." The comment was likely made to contrast Shop-Rite's jobs with those offered by Walmart, which are notoriously non-union. Meleta also responded to questions regarding whether the filing is simply a tactic to block Walmart's arrival in Wawarsing, saying that the corporation is responding to public concern over the project.
"We always take the view that competition makes us better. In this case, the issue again, if you read the filing, there's concern, the community has a concern and we share that concern, that it hasn't been fully explored, all of the impact, whether it's environmental, whether it's economic, [or] changing the [character] of the community for that matter.
"You have to also remember that the lawsuit's objective is so that it's completely vetted and that there's an opportunity for all the consideration — that doesn't mean that the project will go away."
Phil Serghini, a corporate spokesperson for Walmart, offered a short statement regarding the litigation.
"We make very, very little comment, if any, with respect to lawsuits…it's just a policy we have throughout the United States," he said. "The only thing I can tell you, and this is the absolute truth, is that our supporters that we've been working with are very disappointed that a lawsuit has been brought forward."
Steve Krulick, the co-petitioner in the lawsuit who has garnered a reputation in the community for his outspoken views regarding Walmart, spoke about how the application has already caused negative effects in the community.
"The saddest thing in many ways is the divisiveness this causes within a community. There are people who we were friendly to, who we're friends with, former colleagues and things like that, when we see them at these meetings sitting with the pro-Walmart people, and taking a very pro-Walmart position, and they look at me like I'm somehow taking food out of their mouths, almost… and Walmart doesn't care, because it's no skin off their nose really, but they leave behind, when the Walmart either does or doesn't come, they leave a bitterly divided community."
He also offered views on others who have similar views as him, but who he said are scared to speak up.
"They tried, and once they spoke up at these public meetings, felt, they told me, they felt intimidated, they felt scared. They were threatened in their own stores. People would walk in and wag a finger in their face, and say, 'I'm not going to shop here anymore if you keep this up!' To claim that I'm the one that's intimidating, pushing my weight around…it's the other way around. These people are projecting — they're the ones who are using bullying and threatening tactics, threatening to run me out of town, threatening to boycott stores."
Jeff Kaplan, mayor of Ellenville and the attorney for Joe Tso, the mall property's current owner who was also named in the suit, spoke about the litigants as well, offering his view on the merits of the case against Walmart, the Town of Wawarsing, and his client.
"This is really just another reaction to trying to get them to go away," he said. "It's not unusual in these cases for people who oppose the project to go after the SEQR [State Environmental Quality Review] because it's the one avenue in particular that they can try to control, there's not many areas that you can actually effectively close down a project, so it's not an unusual path to take.
"I believe that the review [of the application] was thorough. Lanc and Tully, the [town's] engineers, asked for a significant amount of information and materials that they reviewed at length, and I think that the process has not ignored any of the relevant and material issues."
When asked, Marty Lonstein, Wawarsing Planning Board Chairman, declined to comment on the case.
The petition will be heard in Ulster County Supreme Court in Kingston on June 8 at 9:30 a.m. As of press time, it's not clear when the retailer's application will be back on the planning board's agenda.
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