The Matrix has been unloaded in a small Pennsylvania town. A three-judge panel has ordered the town of Lower Makefield, Pennsylvania to correct a process mistake made in its eagerness to approve a Lowe’s home improvement store, handing a local citizen’s group its first significant victory. After more than three years of contention, the citizens group Residents Against Matrix (RAM) has been validated by the courts. RAM has not only prevented Lowe’s from building, but has demonstrated that the town’s board of supervisors improperly handled the case. According to the Bucks County, PA Courier Times newspaper, the state Commonwealth Court ruled on February 13th that the Lower Makefield supervisors’ approval of the so-called Octagon Center’s first phase was illegal, because the town’s zoning board should have heard the case first. A lower Bucks County court had upheld the supervisors and the Matrix Development Group. “We felt the supervisors had acted improperly all along,” said Gary Cruzan, a founding member of RAM. “Basically, the supervisors don’t have zoning authority, but I think they were so used to doing what they wanted, they felt they could do anything.” The township can now appeal to state Supreme Court, or send the case back to the zoning hearing board. It appears they will do the latter. “We didn’t think it needed to go before the zoning board but if that is needed, then that is where it will go,” the supervisors’ chairman told the Courier Times. The township, Matrix and RAM are also in settlement talks to try and come to an agreement on the land use. Matrix proposed two big box stores, smaller retail stores, hotels and office buildings, but RAM moved to block the big boxes. To sweeten the deal, Matrix offered to pay the township $100,000 a year to cover the cost of increased police and other township services. The supervisors approved a master plan for this project back in 2000. Although RAM appealed that approval, the Bucks County and Commonwealth courts said the appeal wasn’t filed on time. The supervisors gave Matrix final subdivision approval in 2002. The Commonwealth Court last week rejected that 2002 vote. “We agree with the position of RAM that the action of the Board of Supervisors is in error,” the judges wrote, “as the zoning hearing board had to review the plans prior to the grant of final subdivision approval. The Board of Supervisors improperly approved the land development without the plans having first been reviewed and approved by the zoning hearing board.”
RAM has cost Lowe’s millions of dollars in lost sales. The group, which has several thousand members, has demonstrated that big box retailers have more to gain by sitting down with opponents, than trying to shove their over-sized stores down the community’s throat. What could have been a three or four month permitting process, has now turned into a three or four year battle for Lowe’s. For earlier stories, search this database by “Lower Makefield.” Citizens have forced Matrix to go for another sequel to their story.