- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

HERCULES, Calif. — A San Francisco suburb voted to use the power of eminent domain to prevent Wal-Mart Stores Inc. from setting up shop after hearing from dozens of residents opposed to the big-box retailer.

The five-person Hercules City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to invoke eminent domain after opponents said they 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.

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

The overflow crowd that packed into tiny City Hall cheered after the City Council’s decision to seize 17 acres where Wal-Mart intended to build a shopping complex.

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 could not 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,” 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.

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 by which 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 has taken place 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 city could show others how to fight back against big corporations.

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

A number of residents have said Wal-Mart could provide a much-needed place to purchase inexpensive goods, particularly for those 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.

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