Residents in Woonsocket, Rhode Island have good reason to feel betrayed by city officials who sold city-owned land to Wal-Mart for a project the original landowner had not intended. The six acre parcel of land, which had been zoned for passive recreation, was part of a larger parcel donated to the city in the 1960s by Ferland Corp., a developer that built nearby apartments. Despite the fact that the land was donated for recreational purposes, and despite the objections of neighbors, the City Council rezoned the recreation land for commercial uses in 2004, opening the door for a Wal-Mart supercenter. So the citizens had no recourse but to go to court. A group of about a dozen of Wal-Mart’s neighbors filed suit in May, arguing that the City Council acted improperly when the panel voted to rezone land to accommodate the proposed addition. Wal-Mart picked up the legal cost of defending the city’s position in the lawsuit. The neighbors also retained a lawyer, and a ruling is expected shortly. Several months ago, Wal-Mart spent $925,000 to acquire the abutting Roller Kingdom parcel. The company purchased roughly two acres adjacent to the north side of the store. Wal-Mart will be using the new land to expand its existing discount store into a 225,000 s.f. supercenter. Wal-Mart paid $480,000 for the six acres of city-owned recreational land. In another part of town, Woonsocket is preparing to develop a “Municipal Economic Development Zone”, or MED. In the MED zone, the sales tax will be cut in half. The MED zone goes against every smart growth plan in Rhode Island, because it attracts big box retailers to the zone, which is in competition with existing downtowns. A Home Depot is rumored to be interested in the MED zone, which borders North Smithfield and Woonsocket. The MED encourages the spread of sprawl.
City officials betrayed the trust of land that was placed in the city. The donation of land should have required in the deed that the city keep the land for is original purpose, passive recreation. In an honorable city, such wheeling and dealing for greed would not have been an issue. But it has become one in Woonsocket, forcing residents to spend their money challenging the city’s arrogance by going to court to protect their land and surrounding properties from retail slash-and-burn projects.