About a dozen residents of Woonsocket, Rhode Island have filed a lawsuit in Superior Court to block a proposed 206,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter on wooded land that had to be rezoned. The suit, filed against members of the City Council as defendants, was submitted by residential abuttors to the project. Early in April, the City Council passed a rezoning of 6 acres of land next to the existing Wal-Mart from recreational to major commercial. Wal-Mart will use the rezoning to expand its current store to nearly twice its size. The land is owned by the city, and according to the Woonsocket Call newspaper, Wal-Mart is offering $480,000 for the land. Neighbors tried to convince the City Council that expanding the Wal-Mart into the wooded buffer would represent major commercial encroachment on their property. The lawsuit charges the zone change needed for Wal-Mart “does not conform with the comprehensive plan of the City of Woonsocket” and “constitutes a taking of private property without just compensation.” The plaintiffs want the court to return the issue to the City Council “with orders to provide just compensation” to them or to rescind the zone change. Two Boston law firms are representing the city in the case, with Wal-Mart picking up the tab. Part of the purchase/sales agreement between the city and Wal-Mart stipulated that the retailer would pay for the city’s legal defense if the rezoning was challenged. The city’s planning director told The Call that even if the court rules that the city violated its comprehensive plan, “In a worst-case scenario, we could just go back and amend the comprehensive plan.” The city claims Wal-Mart is prepared to wait out the delay the citizen’s lawsuit has caused the project. “I don’t think they have a drop-dead date,” a city official said.
It’s pretty pathetic that a city would side with a corporation against its own residential taxpayers, and use corporate money to pay for the legal defense against its own citizens. The land Wal-Mart wanted to expand onto was not zoned commercial, and the city did not even make an effort to amend its land use plan for the project. Neighbors who bought homes based on the comprehensive plan and the zoning classification, had every expectation that the land would remain a critical buffer between them and the Wal-Mart. But business came first to city officials, who were prepared to hurt the investment these homeowners had made by rezoning the land to let Wal-Mart expand its profits. Its clear in Woonsocket who gets priority treatment, and who gets ignored.