Legal wrangling persists in Walgreens bid for Stratfield site
It's been a battle pitting a corporation against a community. Three years after the Town Plan and Zoning Commission denied an application by Walgreens to move into the former Stratfield IGA Market, lawyers for both sides are still fighting it out.
In fact, John Fallon, the Fairfield lawyer who represents Walgreens, is filing a brief this week in the pharmacy chain's appeal with the state Appellate Court in Hartford. Fallon had first appealed to Bridgeport Superior Court, but Judge David R. Tobin in May last year upheld the town's denial of Walgreen's application.
If Walgreens is allowed to move into the Stratfield Road site where a neighborhood market stood for decades, Eileen Kearns, a member of the Stratfield Village Association, won't set foot inside the place.
"I wouldn't shop there if they were to pay me," she said.
Kearns and other neighbors don't have anything against pharmacies, but many blame Walgreens for forcing out their neighborhood market, a place where one could get fresh fruits and vegetables, among other things, without the hassle of shopping at a large chain store.
If Walgreens were a Pilates studio or a jewelry store, the neighborhood would be just as upset, Kearns said, because the only thing that she and fellow Stratfield area residents want is a small grocery store.
"The drugstore will serve no need and no purpose," said Kearns. "I do not need a lawn chair."
If for some reason Kearns did need a new lawn chair, or medication, she said it's a fairly short car ride to Super Stop & Shop on Villa Avenue, Lupe's Drug Store and CVS on Black Rock Turnpike, or the Super Stop & Shop on Madison Avenue in Bridgeport.
Once Fallon files his brief, Town Attorney Richard Saxl and Joel Green, the lawyer representing the Stratfield Village Association (SVA), as well as Jeffrey and Barbara Rowe, will file their own briefs within 45 days.
"Then there's an opportunity for Walgreens to reply," said Green, "and then the matter will be set down for argument before the Appellate Court."
If Walgreens doesn't score a victory at the appellate level, it can seek relief from the state Supreme Court.
"I think that relief would be unlikely," said Green. "Therefore, at that point this chapter would be closed with respect to this proposal."
Walgreen's application was submitted prior to the zoning board amending regulations of the Neighborhood Designed Business District, which now only permits mom-and-pop kinds of retailers. Any new application by Walgreens would need special permit approval, and thus require a public hearing, according to Green.
"It's a higher burden than initially existed," he said.
Fallon told the Fairfield Citizen the use proposed by Walgreens would not constitute any change of use from how the property was used over five decades, "nor did it constitute a use that was not already permitted under the regulations."
While it's no secret there is plenty of neighborhood opposition to the proposed Walgreens, Fallon feels the planned pharmacy can thrive if given the opportunity to open. "I think there's a great deal of support for the Walgreens, too," he said.
Kearns disagrees. "He's being paid by Walgreens. What else is he going to say?" she said.
However, a recent letter to the editor backs up Fallon's statement that there is some support for a Walgreens outlet.
Len Theis, a resident of the Woodfield Village condos on Glengarry Road, would rather see a chain pharmacy than a "large, old, ugly, rundown, empty box sitting there with boarded-up windows."
Theis went on to criticize First Selectman Kenneth Flatto's efforts to stop Walgreens from opening a store in the Stratfield neighborhood.
"All we have from Flatto is anti-business, unemployment and a run-down intersection in Stratfield," he said.
Flatto said he's not anti-business, but doesn't feel a chain store is appropriate for that site.
"We have been trying to fight for and protect the character of the Stratfield neighborhood and the community's desire to avoid a national chain business from causing all kinds of disruptions to the neighborhood -- late hours, lights, an ugly new building."
He added, "What we have been seeking is to try to find a way to return the local neighborhood market concept to that site."
Flatto said if the town loses the legal battle and a non-neighborhood business opens there, "there's a risk that this can be a precedent that affects many small businesses in neighborhoods such as Stratfield and Southport."
Cristin McCarthy Vahey, a Representative Town Meeting member who represents District 6, said Stratfield area residents want to see a resolution of the dispute. The market closed in 2006. She said members of the Stratfield Village Association have done an incredible job and "the right thing for the neighborhood by fighting" Walgreens.
Grammy Award-winning singer John Mayer, who grew up in the neighborhood, also helped in the fight. In early 2007, he donated an undisclosed sum to the SVA. At that time, Mayer told a Connecticut Post editor he just wants to help preserve the neighborhood where his parents still live.
Mayer's first job was at the small grocery store, then called the Gran Central Market, and he would compose songs in his head as he stocked shelves and corralled shopping carts in the parking lot.
While Fallon doesn't believe a pharmacy is a change of use for the property, Julie DeMarco, president of the SVA, does not share the opinion.
"Walgreens is clearly a change in use for the property," she said, "and we do not accept their attorney's argument that retail is retail. That line of reasoning is dangerous for all of Fairfield's neighborhoods."
DeMarco added, "There's a place for Walgreens in Fairfield, just not in any of our residential neighborhoods. A mass-market retailer would zap the character right out of Stratfield Village."