On July 15, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Wawarsing, New York, and the village of Ellenville, New York were fighting a ‘secret’ Wal-Mart. Ellenville describes itself as “cute” and “one of the most beautiful, up and coming communities in the area.” This little community in the Catskills has six very big Wal-Mart supercenters within 30 miles, in Monticello, Middletown, Kingston, Fishkill, Newburgh, and Milford PA. The census count in Ellenville in 2006 was only 3,926 — a loss of 317 people since 1990. It’s doubtful that those 317 people left the village of Ellenville to move closer to a Wal-Mart — but for the people who remain, their “cute” village and surrounding town of Wawarsing is going to be turned on its head by a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter, located two miles north of Ellenville in the hamlet of Napanoch. According to the Times Herald-Record, Wal-Mart has signed a contract to buy an existing shopping center called the Napanoch Valley Mall. The potential sale of the 20-acre property was announced by the village Mayor, Jeff Kaplan — who also happens to be the lawyer for the owner of the mall. Wal-Mart has put up $250,000 in an escrow account to hold the $5.5 million property. “Everybody knows who it is, but you don’t really know,” Wawarsing Supervisor Edward Jennings told the media back in July of 2008.. It is the town of Wawarsing which will permit the project, not the village. In late July, 2008, lawyers, architects, and engineers from Wal-Mart met with selected town officials in Town Hall. In order to keep the press and public out — at Wal-Mart’s “request” — no more than two town councilmen were present at any one time, to circumvent open-meeting law requirements. Preliminary plans for a 140,000 s.f. supercenter were unveiled. The Mayor/Lawyer, who clearly has known about the project for months, if not years, said, “This has been a lengthy process, but there is clearly more activity as of late than there was previously. We anticipate that it will be fast-tracked in the near future.” The Napanoch Mall lost its steam when its two main anchors, Ames and Grand Union, succumbed to competition from the Wal-Mart fleet of stores in the area. Several small businesses remain at the Mall, but it will be ironic for Wal-Mart to build in the mall that it helped to kill in the first place. On November 28, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart was before the Wawarsing Planning Board. The Times Herald-Record said the Planning Board had to relocate its public hearing on the store’s site plan in order to fit all the attendees in the room. Wawarsing Supervisor Jennings told the newspaper that people in town will remain loyal to small businesses. On March 27, 2009, Sprawl-Busters noted that the Warwarsing Planning Board had given Wal-Mart a big short-cut to success. The Board issued a “negative declaration” under the New York SEQRA law (State Environmental Quality Review Act). Competing grocery chain ShopRite had an attorney at the hearing. Shoprite’s lawyer asked how the Board could vote on a negative declaration if the public hearing process had not yet been closed. The towns’ lawyer explained that the public hearings for the past several months were not part of the SEQRA process at all — just a way for the Planning Board to gather public comments. The Planning Board proceeded to rule that the Wal-Mart supercenter would not have any significant impact on water, drainage, plants or wildlife, nor on the view or aesthetic character of the community. The Board concluded that there might be a “small to moderate” impact on traffic pattern due to the expansion of the mall’s footprint. State law also requires the Board to rule on economic impacts, and the Planning Board said that the superstore would have a large positive impact on the area’s economy because of an estimated 200 jobs that would be created — although they had no evidence of this job impact other than Wal-Mart’s own statement. The Board noted that the Ellenville Village Board of Trustees had voted the night before to support the project. The Ulster County Planning Board had recommended that Wawarsing’s Planning Board should issue a positive declaration — but Wawarsing ignored that recommendation. This week, the Times Herald-Record reported that Shop Rite and a local citizen’s group have sued Wawarsing to try and kill the project. The lawsuit was filed on April 23, 2009 by the Wawarsing-Ellengive for Responsible Development (WERD) and Shop Rite. The latter is a grocery chain which employs more than 50,000 people throughout New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. The lawsuit says the town’s Planning Board unjustly bypassed the full environmental review that this huge retail project should have received. This is the largest retail building in the history of Wawarsing. The Planning Board’s vote to short-cut the state environmental review happened in March. The board said that because the site Wal-Mart wants is part of the existing Napanoch Valley Mall, and has been used for retail and grocery sales when Ames and Grand Union were the anchors, that a positive declaration of environmental impact was not necessary. ShopRite and WERD charge that the town missed the 20-day deadline to skip the long review after declaring they’d be lead agency for the project. Wawarsing Supervisor Jennings described the lawsuit as “absolutely ridiculous.” Jennings said he expects Wal-Mart to move forward despite the litigation. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a go,” Jennings told the newspaper. According to the Times Herald-Record, Shop Rite has been very aggressive about litigating against projects that “threaten its market share.” The newspaper says Shop Rite sued in the town of New Windsor, New York to stop a Price Chopper, in Thompson, New York to oppose another Wal-Mart, and in Thompson to delay a Hannaford’s grocery. According to the newspaper, none of the Shop Rite appeals stopped the projects — but they did delaly them. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of dollars in court because of ShopRite,” the supervisor in Thompson, New York told the newspaper.
The ‘negative declaration’ decision was a legal appeal waiting to happen. Under state law, it is extremely unusual for a large retail project to get a negative declaration. The Wawarsing Planning Board’s decision on economic impacts is especially vulnerable, given the citation of 200 jobs as the main reason to support the plan. In fact, this Wal-Mart supercenter will add no economic value to Ulster County or Wawarsing. No impact statements to support the Planning Board position were introduced into the record, and no one on the Planning Board has any economic assessment background. This is typical of volunteer boards in small towns. They have no clue what the economic impact will be, and they think a job transferred from another business is a gained job. In this small demographic market, where population is actually declining, a big chain store will simply cause other stores — like ShopRite — to close. On August 18, 2001, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Ames department store chain of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, a company which called itself “the largest regional full-line discount retailer,” was closing 47 stores in 10 states by the end of October. The year before, in November, 2000, Ames announced it was closing 32 stores, including 31 of the stores it acquired from Hills Stores Co. in December 1998. The other shoe dropped in August of 2002, when Ames went all the way down — announcing in a press release dated August 14, 2002 that it would close all 327 remaining stores. New York state was the big loser when Ames folded, with 85 closed Ames — including the store in the Napanoch Valley Mall. Now, roughly six years later, Wal-Mart is ready to bulldoze the dead Ames to the ground, as well as the Grand Union — a victim of Wal-Mart supercenter grocery stores. Readers are urged to call Wawarsing Supervisor Edward Jennings at (845) 647-6570 with the following message: “Supervisor Jennings, I know its going to be hard to objectively look at the impacts of a Wal-Mart supercenter on Ellenville — with Mayor Kaplan serving as the mall’s lawyer, but try to forget the fact that the Mayor has promised publicly that this project will be ‘fast-tracked.’ This project should not be fast-tracked. It should be side-tracked — because a village with less than 4,000 people (and falling), and a surrounding town of only 9,000 more — does not warrant a huge Wal-Mart supercenter. Along with cheap underwear you will see a marked rise in crime and traffic. In economic terms, Wal-Mart has already hit your grocery and department store sector. Now they’re just coming in to take over market share completely from existing merchants like ShopRite. Even little stores like Pete’s Market will feel the pinch. In small communities where Wal-Mart controls the market, their low everyday prices don’t look so low anymore. The scale of this proposal is incompatible with the rest of the built environment in Napanoch and Ellenville. The Planning Board has made a serious legal mistake by giving this project a negative declaration. Most, if not all, New York State Wal-Mart superstores have required a positive declaration, and a full SEQRA review. This store is the wrong size, and in the wrong place. Wal-Mart has already conquered the larger markets in your region; the Ellenville area was clearly the fourth or fifth priority level of store location. But there is no such thing as a ‘hamlet’ supercenter. In such a small community, with limited spending cash, any store of this size requires the lion’s share of local shopping dollars, and has the potential to decimate remaining local businesses and their jobs, plus put an unimagined burden on local infrastructure and services. This project can be rejected on the grounds of its scale-related impacts. If Wal-Mart wants to come to Wawarsing/Ellenville at the scale of the Ames store — fine. But their proposal is two and a half times larger than Ames, and should be rejected. I’m glad WERD and Shop Rite have taken this to court, and I hope this project is remanded back to the town of a positive declaration. Play by the rules, Mr. Jennings. If this project is a go, you ought to be a go too — for ruining the small town scale of your community.”