Wal-Mart has taken public officials in Spring Township, Pennsylvania to court, charging that the township’s supervisors and attorney were “biased” against the retailer’s plans for a supercenter. But a judge in Berks County, Pennsylvania has rejected Wal-Mart’s claim, and ruled that the officials can continue to lead the zoning hearing for a proposed store, located at Broadcasting and Paper Mill roads. The Wal-Mart hearings have spread out over 12 separate sessions already. Wal-Mart claimed that township officials were biased against the project, and the company wanted the court to appoint a hearing examiner to take over the case. Wal-Mart has to obtain a conditional use permit to build on the 68 acre parcel. According to the Reading Eagle newspaper, Wal-Mart complained that the town’s lawyer was “vitriolic and caustic” in his examination of witnesses. The landowner also claims that one Township Supervisor told the owner nearly two years ago that he would never approve a Wal-Mart as a conditional use during his lifetime. The judge said Wal-Mart had waited too long to raise their concerns. “If Wal-Mart, or any party, believed that (the) Supervisor… could not render an impartial decision based upon the statements made, that party should have taken up the matter with (the) Supervisor on the record at the first available opportunity,” the judge wrote. The judge said the charges against other township supervisors and their attorney were unsubstantiated. “The supervisors were vindicated, and now we can get down to business,” the township’s lawyer told the Eagle. “I don’t think there was any basis for their claim,” the chairman of the supervisors said. “I’ve been sitting through all of the hearings, and I will continue to listen and render my decision.” “We expect to be treated fairly as we have throughout,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said.
If Wal-Mart says it was treated fairly “throughout,” then why did they take the town to court? This is similar to what a baseball pitcher does by throwing a fastball on the inside of the plate to “brush back” the batter from the plate. Wal-Mart’s legal move here was designed as a brush back pitch. It lets township officials know that the company has a legal hair-trigger, and puts officials on the defensive from this point on. Although Wal-Mart lost the case, they may have won the objective: intimidate local officials and soften them up for the project. We can only hope that the gambit backfired, and that the township officials will resent the waste of time and money that Wal-Mart put them through. The only thing left to do now is to reject the store’s conditional use permit, with a big smile on their official faces. No applicant has a right to a conditional use permit. As long as local officials clearly state their reasons for objecting to the project, and use the criteria in their zoning code for making a discretionary decision on the conditional use, Wal-Mart can sue until its blue in the face.