A Judge in Genesee County, New York has handed Wal-Mart opponents a major victory in their on-going battle against a superstore in Batavia, New York. Town officials, in their rush to approve a Wal-Mart expansion from its current 125,000 s.f. store to a 208,000 s.f. store, gave the company two special permits and two zoning variances, but they forgot to perform the state-required analysis that measures the environmental impacts of the project. Nine local plaintiffs who brought the appeal against the town’s Planning and Zoning Boards, are all members of a group called Batavia First, and all live near the propopsed expansion. Batavia First’s attorney told The Daily News that the Judge’s ruling last week means the town has “to start over.” At issue specificially was the town’s failure to complete Part II of the state Environmental Assessment form. Instead, the town forwarded the case to the Genesee County Planning Board without the environmental assessment, which asks a series of questions about the project’s environmental impacts on the town. Because the town was the lead agency under state law in this case, it was required to make the environmental assessment, but completely failed to follow state law on this point. The Court ruled that the Environmental Action Form “must contain enough information to describe the proposed action, its location, its purpose, and its proposed impacts on the environment.” Part II of the EAF explains he “projects impacts and their magnitude.” Without completing Part II, the town demonstrated that it had no idea what the impacts of the project would be when it approved the plan. Batavia First had raised a number of other issues in their lawsuit, including a conflict of interest charge against the engineering consultant used by the town — an engineer whose firm had done work on other Wal-Mart projects. Batavia First questioned that engineer’s ability to objectively assess the impact of a project proposed by a company that his firm had received consulting fees from in the past. Because of the citizen’s appeal, the town will now have to go back and perform the state review process the way it appears in state law, and go through the process of measuring the impact of the project on the environment.
Once again a town is caught in the act of short-cutting the legal process for approving a store. In their zeal to bulldoze their constituents, local officials in Batavia forced homeowners to spend their time and money pursuing elected officials into court to protect their rights under state law. Batavia’s lawyer chaffed under the Judge’s ruling, and complained that completing the Part II EAF “doesn’t make sense.” This case is similar to the court ruling in Bakersfield, California in the same week that officials in that community also skipped a few steps in their eagerness to sprawl their community. Such enthusiastic skirting of the law by local officials might be excusable if they had any facts on their side supporting the economic and environmental impacts of these large scale projects. But municipal officials in both cases didn’t even take the due diligence to measure the impacts of the projects they are supporting. That’s not being lazy — that’s just bad governance. And in both cases, it took a citizen’s group to call them on it, and win. Unfortunately, in both cases, local officials will go back and cross their T’s and then approve the projects once again, reaching a foregone conclusion that the projects are made in Lake Wobegon, where all the site plans are above average, and all the environmental impacts good-looking. For earlier stories on Batavia or Bakersfield, search this database by the name of either town.