Developers often use lawsuits to try to intimated local officials. Sometimes the legal action can get very personal. Meijer’s is a retail supercenter chain that was founded in 1934 by a “modest local barber” in Greenville, Michigan, Hendrik Meijer. He purchased $328.76 worth of merchandise on credit, and together with his 14-year-old son, Fred, they opened Meijer Grocer to meet the needs of his barbershop customers. By the 1960’s, the company had 26 stores and 4,000 team members in Michigan. Today, Meijer’s has more than 180 stores and 60,000 team members in the five state of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. The company claims it does business based on this simple philosophy: “take care of your customers, team members and your community.” They apparently also have a philosophy about taking caring of people who dare to oppose its oversized projects. One public official who had the guts to stand up to Meijer’s is now suing the company in Circuit Court in the county of Grand Traverse Michigan. William Boltres, the plaintiff, charges that because he voted against a Meijer’s big box project as a public official in Acme township, Michigan, the retailer retaliated against him. In January of 2005, Meijer’s filed suit against Boltres, claiming that Boltres was a member of a citizens’ group Concerned Citizens of Acme Township (CCAT). Boltres says he never was a member of the citizens’ group, and that Meijer’s easily could have discovered that, but made no reasonable inquiry to learn the truth. The lawsuit asserts that Meijer’s lawsuit against Boltres was pursued with “malice and/or a motive to retaliation against Boltres solely because Boltres did not vote in favor of Meijer’s big box store plan.” After the city voted down Meijer’s plan, the retailer sued Boltres, alleging he had a conflict of interest, that his vote was biased and unfair, and that he owed Meijer monetary damages in excess of $25,000. The latest lawsuit filed by Boltres responds that the Meijer’s lawsuit was frivolous because the retailer should have known that Boltres did not belong to the group. Boltres’complaint says that Meijer’s “is known in the State of Michigan as a company that will resort to bullying tactics and retaliation against citizens who oppose Meijer big box development.” The Meijer’s lawsuit “damaged Bill Boltres’ peace of mind and health by subjecting him to a frivolous lawsuit and a frivolous claim for significant monetary damages.” When the Meijer’s lawsuit was dimissed in favor of Boltres, the court found the retailer lacked probable cause. Boltres charges that Meijer’s used its lawsuit “for the ulterior motive of causing vexation, trouble, embarrassment, damage to plaintiff’s personal reputation, damage to plaintiff’s community reputation, and as retaliation for plaintiff Bill Boltres’ good faith effort to participate in town government.” Boltres says that Meijer’s used its lawsuit to try to prevent him for “fairly and objectively” reviewing Meijer’s plans.” After the township approved their plan, Meijer’s filed seven court actions against township officials, and a recall effort was launched to get rid of the township board members who had approved the permit conditions Meijer’s did not want. Meijer’s sued the township’s supervisor, clerk, four Trustees, and township treasurer Bill Boltres. But in a ruling that upheld the township’s conditions, 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers called those requirements reasonable for the location. “Construction would perhaps go more smoothly if Meijer would stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole,” Rodgers said. Before the recall vote, former Michigan Governor William Milliken, a Grand Traverse County resident, came out against the recall. “Ordinarily, I make a point of not becoming involved in local political issues,’ the former Governor wrote, “but I feel strongly that the outcome of this election will have important implications not only for Acme Township but for the entire region.” Boltres charged that Meijer’s was behind the recall effort. One of the recall petition circulators admitted in a court deposition that he had attended two meetings “organized by Meijer” where the recall petition effort was organized. About two weeks ago, a Michigan state Court of Appeals refused to hear the appeal filed by Meijer over Acme Township’s 2006 conditional approval of their superstore along M-72. The Acme town board approved plans for a 232,000 s.f. grocery and general merchandise store, as well as a 2,400 s.f. gas and convenience store. That wasn’t good enough for Meijer’s. They took issue with several permit conditions, including relocation of the gas/convenience store and provisions for raised and demarcated walkways. “The township worked hard on creating conditions for the Meijer site that fit with the master plan as much as possible,” the township’s lawyer told the Travers City Record-Eagle. “Hopefully, this is going to be the last chapter in the litigation between Meijer and Acme Township.” The Boltres lawsuit means the litigation is far from over — only this time Meijer’s will have to answer for its actions.
According to the Michigan Environmental Council, the intimidation in Acme Township began when township voters defeated every incumbent running for reelection in August of 2004. The winning candidates, who were endorsed by CCAT, favored development of a pedestrian-friendly small town commercial center surrounded by neighborhood housing. The losing candidates wanted to give a green light to build the biggest shopping mall in northern Michigan. A giant Meijer’s store was to anchor the development. After losing, the lame duck trustees changed the zoning from residential to commercial and approved a Special Use Permit so that Meijer’s and the developers could try to beat the clock before the newly-elected board could take office in January 2005. Meijer and the developer sued when the new board tabled the plans for the mega-development. Meijer’s lawsuit is known as “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). It stated that some of the new officials “cannot participate in administrative proceedings for which there is a potential for bias.” It claimed the township supervisor, trustees and planning commissioners have an illegal conflict of interest simply by being associated with the citizen’s group, CCAT. SLAPP suits are used by developers to scare officials into backing down and issuing permits to build developments the local community doesn’t want. The goal in these suits is not to recoup money damages in a court of law. The goal is to scare small town officials, afraid of losing their homes, cars or lifelong savings, into caving in before these cases get to court. Some states have laws which force developers to show up-front the evidence in the lawsuit, and allows citizens being attacked with a SLAPP suit to resolve the matter quickly. In this case, Meijer’s attempts to run roughshod over a local official has backfired.