On July 15, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Wawarsing, New York, and the village of Ellenville, New York were fighting a Wal-Mart. The proposed Wal-Mart supercenter would be located two miles north of Ellenville in the hamlet of Napanoch. According to the Times Herald-Record, Wal-Mart 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. It is the town of Wawarsing which will permit the project, not the village. 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 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 Ulster County Planning Board had recommended that Wawarsing’s Planning Board should issue a positive declaration — but Wawarsing ignored that recommendation. On May 9, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Shop-Rite and a local citizen’s group had filed a suit against Wawarsing to try and kill the project. The lawsuit was filed on April 23, 2009 by the Wawarsing-Ellenville 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 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. Shop-Rite 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 delay them. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of dollars in court because of Shop-Rite,” 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 had any economic assessment background. This week, the Shawangunk Journal reported that a small business owner in the Napanoch Mall has started a petition drive to intimidate Shop-Rite into dropping its lawsuit. The owners of Napanoch Valley Wines is sending the petition to the company that owns Shop-Rite, the Wakefern Food Corporation. The form letters ask the corporation to withdraw the lawsuit against Wal-Mart and the Town of Wawarsing Planning Board. Valley wines owner Bella Volchik wrote the letter and placed it in her wine shop, just a few doors down from the Wal-Mart location. Volchik also owns a gift shop in the same mall called Katherine’s Korner. Her letter says the Wawarsing area is “literally dying without jobs.” Over the past month, Volchik says she has sent off 450 letters from people who have pledged they will boycott Shop-Rite until they drop their lawsuit. Volchik says wants to meet with Shop-Rite’s parent company. “We would like to meet with them and show them that the tarnished reputation of Shop-Rite locally could be fixed if they worked with the community, and by lowering the prices, there is possible coexistence with other stores,” she told the Journal.
A spokeswoman for the Ellenville Shop-Rite told the newspaper that currently there are no plans to drop the litigation, and so far there has been no impact of the boycott on the store’s sales. Shop-Rite has pointed out that they are co-plaintiffs with the citizen’s group WERD. “We can appreciate the position of the letter writers, but we have concerns about (the Wal-Mar) impact. We have concern about its impact on jobs. The jobs we offer our associates are good jobs; we provide them with generous benefits. We have a lot of long-term associates with us, so we have concerns about those jobs as well.” Volchik says she is going to continue her letter-writing campaign. Readers are urged to support the Shop-Rite/WERD litigation by calling Napanoch Valley Wines at (845) 647-1709, or dropping them a letter: Bella Volchik, Valley Wines, 7500 State Route 209 Napanoch, NY 12458-9998. Leave this message: “It is pathetic to see a small business organizing support for Wal-Mart — the killer of thousands of small businesses in little towns like Warwarsing. You hope Wal-Mart will boost your sales — but you better pray they don’t sell beer and wine, because before long, Valley Wines will be nothing but an empty bottle in the retailing trash bin. You may not care about Shop-Rite jobs — but they pay more than Wal-Mart ever will, and Wawarsing will see no new jobs from this project. Wal-Mart has been compared to a retail Black Plague: it makes everyone sick, and kills off the weak. You are welcoming in the plague to Wawarsing — and hastening the day your own business goes under.”