At what was supposed to be a routine meeting of the Northfield, MN City Council regarding a Target development, public officials were caught up short by the announcement that a lawsuit had been filed against the city to halt the project. In the middle of an agenda supposed to deal with the extension of utilities to the Target site, a citizen arose during “open microphone” and asked if the Council was aware that a lawsuit had been filed to stop the Target from being built. The Council hurriedly called for a 20 minute recess, while the city clerk went back to his desk to read the lawsuit that was sitting in his In box. Mayor Bill Rossman, an outspoken supporter of the Target store, called the municipal ignorance of the lawsuit “an honest mistake”, and then announced that all Target-related items on the agenda would be removed from consideration. It turns out that the city had been notified that day of a lawsuit filed by 8 city residents. The lawsuit charges that the proposed Target, which was narrowly approved in a voter referendum last March, violates the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act because it has a “substantial negative impact on protected historical resources”. The suit also claims that the city neglected to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement regarding the project’s impact on the central business district; the city violated its charter and state law by enacting an ordinance different than the one approved by voters in March; that the city’s annexation of the land was improperly conducted and did not include a cost-benefit analysis as required by the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The lawsuit asks the court to impose a temporary restraining order against the city from issuing any building permits for the development until it complies with all state and local laws. The attorney for the “Northfield 8”, Michael Chase of St. Paul, told the Northfield News that the lawsuit was an “effort by a group of citizens to get the City Council to follow the law…The City Council is running roughshod over the law to kowtow to a development that is not in the best interests of Northfield.” Mayor Rossman said the city will seek to hire legal help with expertise in environmental and municipal law, and then warned: “This will likely be expensive for the city to defend because there are so many issues, and we may seek to recover attorney’s costs from plaintiffs.”
Mayor Bill Rossman is the one who said during the Target campaign: “It’s not how big you grow, its how you grow big”. The citizens in his city have challenged the Mayor’s vision of how Northfield will grow big. And the Mayor’s response is: We will sue you back! The Mayor could have predicted that any legal action against the city would involve “so many issues”. Usually its the developer who threatens to sue residents for opposing a project, so-called SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). In Northfield, the city is in the awkward position of suing its own taxpaying citizens. The Mayor did not walk away from the March vote with a strong message from the voters (see newsflash entry in March, 1999). The vote was extremely close, with nearly half of the voters in Northfield opposing the Target. Which is more important to the Mayor: a Target store, or the First Amendment rights of his citizens to petition government? As far as expenses to the city, a Target store could have significant adverse financial impacts on public revenues — far in excess of the legal costs of this lawsuit. But the Mayor and Council did not seek an economic impact statement, and so they have no idea what the fiscal impact of the store will be on their central business district, or other city infrastructure costs, like police, fire, and the extension of utilities to the site. Obviously some residenets in Northfield believe that the city had an obligation to gather the facts before acting — and that the expense of welcoming in a Target megastore was more costly in the long run than the cost of a lawsuit to keep them out. When a city threatens to countersue its own citizens, the message it: You better like the decisions we make — or we’ll go after you! For a copy of the lawsuit filing, contact sprawl-busters.