Monday, May 29, 2006

California town the latest to snub Wal-Mart

California town the latest to snub Wal-Mart
Sun May 28, 2006 10:07 AM ET

By Jim Christie

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The town of Hercules, California, has upscale aspirations and its vision of the good life rules out a Wal-Mart store.

Similarly, three Maine towns are considering a "box-free" zone to prevent Wal-Mart from opening in an area of coastal New England known for its colonial charm, an idea mirroring wealthy and quaint Nantucket's recent ban on chain stores.

The city council of the mixed-race bedroom community of 23,000 east of San Francisco voted this week to invoke eminent domain to block Wal-Mart Stores Inc. from building a 99,000 square foot (9,200 sq meter) store near the town's waterfront.

The area is the centerpiece of Hercules' redevelopment effort, which aims to create a destination on par with high-end Sausalito across the bay. That would complement Hercules' plan to market itself as an "anti-suburb" with new neighborhoods appealing to home buyers nostalgic for old-fashioned residential areas within cities.

The unusual move stunned California's big-box retailers, who usually benefit from eminent domain, which allows government to take private property for its use or for use by third parties if their projects would benefit the public.

"To use eminent domain is such an abuse of the process," said Rex Hime, president of the California Business Properties Association, which represents large retailers.

"We've seen cities come up with land restrictions, we've seen cities come up with environmental restrictions, we've seen cities do any number of things ... but never going so far as to using eminent domain," Hime said. "This is the beginning of a very slippery slope ... Next year those laws could apply to Target, Home Depot, Lowe's; it just keeps right on going."


Wal-Mart is no stranger to hostility. In a garden variety instance of opposition fueled by union activism, officials in Oakland, California, another San Francisco Bay area city, had tried to bar big-box retailers altogether because Wal-Mart aimed to enter their market.

Wal-Mart faces a different and more confounding source of anger in Hercules -- a "class war," according to Roger Pilon, a legal affairs specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"The people in Hercules are coming across as looking down their noses on those who shop at Wal-Mart, as not wanting 'those people in our neighborhood,'" Pilon said.

Wal-Mart opponents in Hercules say its presence would blight their town, the first in California with planning codes guided by "New Urbanism," a school of urban design focused on pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods mixed with homes and shops and lacking big-box retailers.

"It's the quality of living in Hercules that we're dealing with," said Steve Kirby, a Hercules resident since 1988. "One thing that we don't want is a regional-type business in there that brings in a lot of traffic."

To some in Hercules, Wal-Mart's low prices raise the prospect of low-income visitors from neighboring towns to the north, which have median family income levels well below that of Hercules, and southern neighbor San Pablo, a gritty blue-collar town.

"Hercules is a high-income enclave in a larger lower-income trade area that is currently underserved by retail activity," noted a 2005 analysis done for the town planners by Strategic Economics and Main Street Property Services.

Hercules residents opposed to Wal-Mart say they will press their fight even if the retailer scales down its store plan. Compromise is unlikely, Kirby said: "Now, forget it."

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Loscotoff declined to comment on the company's troubles in Hercules, but said the retailer is planning a legal challenge to the city council's action.


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Thursday, May 25, 2006

City Council votes to seize Wal-Mart land



City Council votes to seize Wal-Mart land
Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Hercules City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to take the unprecedented step of using eminent domain to prevent Wal-Mart from building a big-box store on a 17-acre lot near the city's waterfront.

The vote caused most of the 300 people who had packed Hercules City Hall for the meeting to break out in cheers and applause.

"The city of Hercules is very unique. People from the outside have to understand that,'' said Hercules Vice Mayor Ed Balico just before the vote.

During a 90-minute public comment period that preceded the vote, nearly everyone who spoke urged the council to fight Wal-Mart.

"Throw the bums out," Hercules resident Steve Kirby said at the podium of Wal-Mart. "Wal-Mart will never understand what we want."

Another resident, Anita Roger-Fields, expressed concern for small businesses in the city, saying they could be driven out of business by the discount store. "(Wal-Mart is) the worst thing that could happen to our community. They want to crush the competition."

The vote is the latest twist in a battle between the city and the discount-store chain, which wants to build a store near the city's historic waterfront. The city contends Wal-Mart's plan to build a discount store does not fit with its plans to develop the waterfront into a pedestrian-oriented village with high-end shops and homes.

"I'm elated. This is the result we wanted. The fact that it was unanimous is wonderful. Our City Council really came through," said Brenda Smith Johnson, an information technology vice president with JP Morgan Chase in San Francisco who moved to Hercules in 1992. "I know this is going to be a hard fight but we're up to it."

Some residents were infuriated that Wal-Mart had warned that if the City Council voted for eminent domain, the move would cost the city millions.

"I don't like to be threatened and they threatened my community,'' Bob Steiner, a certified public accountant and magician who lives in Hercules, said after the vote.

Only about four people spoke in favor of Wal-Mart. "The city has no guarantees that anybody is going to develop the property if they take it away from Wal-Mart," said Hercules resident Andre Wilson.

The vote allows the city to begin proceedings to acquire Wal-Mart's property by force to achieve its redevelopment goals.

Following the vote, Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Loscotoff said Wal-Mart will evaluate the situation and decide what to do next.

The city was once a company town, home to a dynamite plant that during World War I was the nation's leading producer of TNT, and some turn-of-the-century homes that used to house company officials have been restored. The city plans to continue developing land along the waterfront to fit its vision.

"Why should we have to sell ourselves short when we have this great waterfront," Hercules resident Valerie Wilgus said following the vote.

Some residents have said they would prefer grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Andronico's, and specialty shops like those in Berkeley's swank Fourth Street district.

The vote comes after Wal-Mart rejected a city offer to buy its property earlier this year.

Officials from the nation's largest retailer have said they are determined to open a store on the company's 17 acres overlooking San Pablo Bay. In a letter to the city on Tuesday, Wal-Mart attorneys argued that eminent domain was unnecessary because the company had tailored its project to meet the community's desires, downsizing the proposed store and garden center from 167,000 square feet to roughly 100,000 square feet and designing the shopping center to have "a very attractive, village-like appearance.''

But critics countered that Wal-Mart's latest plan was still more than 50 percent larger than a store plan approved for the site before the retail giant bought the property.

The city was the first in the state to adopt a redevelopment code that prescribes the design of streets, building dimensions and some architectural requirements, such as front porches. A key part of the plan called for a waterfront village with high-density housing and shops, a shoreline park, a train station, bus service and even a ferry stop.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Woman's Toes Licked By Man Hiding Under Car

Woman's Toes Licked By Man Hiding Under Car

POSTED: 11:55 pm EDT May 23, 2006

Police in Tulsa, Okla., are searching for a man who hid under a woman's car at a Wal-Mart parking lot and then licked her toes as she loaded groceries into the vehicle, according to a report.

The woman said she was at the Tulsa Wal-Mart located near 81st Street and Lewis when she felt her toes being licked.

She assumed it was a dog but when she looked down, she saw it was a man lying under her vehicle.

"I felt something lick my foot," the woman said. "I looked at him and I said, 'What in the hell are you doing?' And that's exactly what I said, 'What are you doing?'"

The culprit got up and ran away before police arrived at the scene.

The woman said the man who licked her toes is Hispanic or Indian, about 5-foot-9 and weighs 150 pounds. He was wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans.

The victim filed a police report and a witness also saw it happen.

A Tulsa County assistant district attorney said if the man is caught, he'll face a misdemeanor charge of battery or outraging public decency.

Watch Local 6 News for more on this story.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Giant Wal-Mart to rural landowners: Sell or else

Giant Wal-Mart to rural landowners: Sell or else

Retailer cites eminent domain in its bid to build a massive distribution center

By Etan Horowitz
Orlando Sentinel

May 12, 2006, 9:28 AM EDT

The world's largest retailer, battling to build a huge new distribution center in Putnam County, is threatening a handful of rural residents that they may have their land taken if they don't agree to sell it to the company.

Representatives of Wal-Mart have told the landowners they will ask Putnam County to use its powers of eminent domain if the families won't sell. The retailer needs about a half-dozen parcels to widen a road that would provide access to a proposed 800,000-square-foot distribution center just over the Volusia County line -- a project Volusia officials have gone to court to block.

A letter to the landowners gave them until 5 p.m. Thursday to agree to a deal with the company.

The deadline came on the same day that Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a bill curbing local governments' use of eminent domain to benefit private businesses. But the bill, which was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Connecticut city to condemn an entire coastal neighborhood for a developer, does not apply in this case because the road is public, said a legal expert who helped craft the legislation.

Wal-Mart's plan to build the massive distribution center -- nearly the size of the 952,000-square-foot Oviedo Marketplace -- has been opposed by several residents groups as well as Volusia County because of concerns about the traffic the center would create, its impact on the environment and whether it is compatible with the rural area. Although the center would not be open to shoppers, trucks would crowd U.S. Highway 17, opponents say.

The latest effort by Wal-Mart to keep the center on track drew immediate criticism from some residents and raised concerns even with officials who support the project.

Putnam County Administrator Rick Leary said the county hasn't agreed to use its powers of eminent domain for Wal-Mart.

"Some people might think these individuals [the Wal-Mart representatives] are agents of the county, and they aren't," Leary said. "We haven't talked about using eminent domain, and it hasn't been anything the county has practiced."

Wal-Mart said it needs to buy about seven lots to widen Clifton Road in Crescent City and install a utility line.

John Williams, 61, a retired corrections officer who owns a mobile home on the road, said he doesn't want to sell the land he worked for years to buy. But he fears he might not have a choice.

"They are the big bear, and there's nothing we can do about it," Williams said. "The big bear comes in and takes whatever they want."

Keith Morris, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that despite the letter from the consultant, the company does not plan to ask the county to use eminent domain to acquire the properties.

Morris said he did not know why the consultant had written that the properties might be acquired through eminent domain.

"It sounds like there is a miscommunication somewhere along the way," he said. "We have instructed a consultant to negotiate on our behalf [for the right of way], but beyond that, we have not given any instructions to say that if that doesn't work out, we should look at eminent domain. I can't tell you why they wrote that."

Mike Mullis, the consultant who wrote the letter, would not answer questions about the possible use of eminent domain.

Residents were given letters offering them $1,000 for the right to buy their property at prices Mullis claimed were twice the market value. But the letters went on to warn what could happen if they don't agree to the deal:

"In the event any of these property parcel owners are not willing to either sell, or to provide the needed r.o.w. [right of way] . . . our firm will ask the County to proceed with the necessary legal actions to secure those properties from the property owners to accommodate the public purpose needs to serve the planned project's utility and road requirements."

"One or two people are scared to death," said Michael Woodward, an attorney representing some of the Putnam residents opposing the Wal-Mart. "They think if they don't give Wal-Mart what they want, they will get sued and will get kicked out on the street. It can be pretty scary when somebody comes to your door and starts telling you they represent the biggest corporation in America, and they have the county backing them, and you better get in line."

Although the new state law does not apply to this case, it's still unclear whether Putnam would be able to use its powers of condemnation, said Andrew Brigham, a Jacksonville attorney who helped write the new state legislation.

"I would say this is a jump ball," Brigham said.

Traditionally, eminent domain has been used to take private property needed for public improvements such as roads, schools and public buildings.

But although the road would be open to the public, lawyers could argue that the improvements mainly benefit Wal-Mart, Brigham said.

"There is an argument there for the owners if it could be shown that the widening of the road predominately favored Wal-Mart and that the public purpose is incidental," he said.

Volusia County Council member Dwight Lewis, who represents the part of Volusia closest to the planned Wal-Mart site, is disturbed by the possibility of using eminent domain to make way for the distribution center.

"They may say it is for public purpose to widen the road, but it is for the purpose of allowing the largest and richest corporation on the planet to come into the neighborhood and disrupt the neighborhood," Lewis said. "That's a misuse of eminent domain."

Putnam officials have hailed the center as a godsend, saying it would bring high-paying jobs to the area, which has a high unemployment rate and low income levels.

Even Williams, one of the homeowners, said the Wal-Mart center would be good for Putnam. He just doesn't want to give up his home for it.

"I don't have the money to fight them," said Williams, who lives in a five-bedroom, triple-wide trailer with his wife and sister-in-law.

He said Wal-Mart offered him $150,000 to sell, but he told representatives he's not selling and threw one of their letters in the trash.

"If they will let me keep part of the land, I will do that. But I don't know if they can do that or not."

Etan Horowitz can be reached at or 386-851-7915.
Copyright © 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel