Hercules uses eminent domain to keep out Wal-Mart: San Francisco (CA) Chronicle, 5/23/06

By Justin M Norton, Associated Press

A San Francisco suburb [Hercules CA] voted Tuesday night to use the power of eminent domain to keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. off a piece of city land after hearing from dozens of residents who accused the big-box retailer of engaging in scare tactics to force its way into the bedroom community.

The overflow crowd that packed into the tiny Hercules City Hall cheered after the five-person City Council voted unanimously to use the unusual tactic to seize the 17 acres where Wal-Mart intended to build a shopping complex.

"The citizens have spoken. No to Wal-Mart," said Kofi Mensah, who has lived in Hercules for more than two decades and said he values the city's authentic feel.

Attorneys from Wal-Mart told the council that the retailer had spent close to $1 million to redesign the property to the community's liking. They said the council couldn't claim it was legally necessary to take the land and that the decision set a bad precedent.

"Today it may be Wal-Mart but the question is where does it end," Wal-Mart attorney Edward G. Burg said.

City officials countered that buying the land was acceptable to ensure it was developed to the community's liking and fit in with overall plans for the city.

Opponents worried that Wal-Mart would drive local retailers out of business, tie up traffic and wreck the small-town flavor of this city of 24,000.

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Loscotoff said after the hearing that the company had not decided how to proceed with its plans in light of the decision.

Wal-Mart's initial proposal for a 142,000-square foot store near Hercules' San Pablo Bay waterfront was rejected by the City Council. So the company submitted a scaled-down plan that included a pedestrian plaza, two outdoor eating areas and other small shops, including a pharmacy.

Hercules said no again, and opponents began raising the possibility of eminent domain, a legal tactic where government agencies can take land from its owners for the public good.

Cities sometimes use eminent domain to build roads or redevelop properties, but the owners must be paid fair market value for their land.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that such seizures are allowable if the construction raises the tax base and benefits the entire community.

Some residents and Hercules city officials say the land, which is currently open space, would be better suited for upscale stores that attract affluent shoppers and give the suburb a classy touch.

Officials say using eminent domain is a new tactic in a fight that's occurred elsewhere. Communities across the country have kept Wal-Mart out by imposing size caps for businesses and laws that set high minimum pay rates.

Jeri Wilgus, 47, said she was proud of the council for standing up to Wal-Mart and said the town could show others how to fight back against big corporations.

"We are setting an example for the rest of the country," she said.

A handful of residents said Wal-Mart could provide a much-needed place to purchase inexpensive goods, particularly for residents who can't drive out of town.

"I know I can go there and get a fair price for a good product," said Glenna Phillips, who has lived in Hercules for 26 years.

San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com