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The fate of the furniture retailer IKEA’s controversial plan to build a 309,000-square-foot “big box” superstore in the industrial city of New Rochelle, N.Y., was settled in the court of public opinion before it ever reached a court of law. However, lawyers — whether hired for their expertise in municipal review procedures or contributing their time and passion to help defeat what they regarded as a threat to their communities — played a significant role in the landmark environmental fight. IKEA abandoned the project on Jan. 31, a business decision it reached two months after a five-day public hearing at which 222 witnesses pummeled the company’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) while only four spoke up for the development. “The opposition came from all sides and flattened them,” said Pamela Davis of Larchmont, a volunteer attorney who helped pick apart the company’s DEIS. “There was something for everybody to hate” in the project, said Patty Horing, a former public relations executive who serves as co-president of WRAIN, originally christened “Westchester Residents Against IKEA Now” but since re-named to “Westchester Residents Acting to Improve Neighborhoods.” White Plains, N.Y., lawyer Michael Zarin, who was hired by New Rochelle to quarterback the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process, said that it is unfortunate but not unusual that the consideration of large development projects in suburban communities “takes on a level of conflict that sometimes has no relationship to reality.” In IKEA’s case, he lamented the opponents’ “scare tactics [that] … contaminated the whole process.” Opponents objected to the removal of 34 homes, 29 businesses and two churches in the City Park neighborhood of New Rochelle to make way for IKEA. They were outraged by suggestions that the city was prepared to use its power of eminent domain to seize and convey property to IKEA in a neighborhood the city characterized as “blighted,” a designation contested by the opponents. (IKEA said it expected to purchase all the land it needed and had amassed 70 percent when it pulled out of the project.) Residents of prosperous neighboring communities like the Town of Mamaroneck and the Village of Larchmont were concerned about the environmental impacts of the project. They were horrified by estimates that the new store would generate more than two million additional vehicle trips a year on local roadways, spawning traffic tie-ups and endangering school children. IKEA, one of the world’s top furniture retailers, began operating in Sweden in 1943. With 160 stories in 33 countries, the company made its name offering reasonably priced unassembled furniture in simple modern designs that customers took off in flat cartons and set up themselves. Many stores feature playrooms for children and restaurants offering Swedish cuisine. The New Rochelle store would have been the third in the metropolitan area; others are located in Elizabeth, N.J. and in Hicksville, N.Y. Legal issues played a small part in the campaign, said David B. Tulchin, a Larchmont resident who is a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell. “We thought we’d be able to stop it on a political basis.” As a WRAIN board member, “I wasn’t functioning as a lawyer,” he said. James M. Gdula, IKEA’s project manager, said, “There was nothing that unusual, nothing about the legal process that concerned us.” From the beginning the company expected to end up in court but was confident that its project would survive legal scrutiny. However, Larchmont Village Trustee Kenneth M. Bialo, a litigator at Baker Botts, said that legal arguments raised against IKEA’s effort were part of “a stew. So many different streams were intersecting that I am not sure you could have taken anything out of it.” LAWYERS’ INVOLVEMENT The anti-IKEA crusade did attract many knowledgeable professionals, lawyers among them. Zarin said that mothers “with time on their hands” were prominent in what Horing described as a public education campaign. The community activists lobbied politicians, gathered thousands of signatures for petitions and churned out flyers and e-mails. Michele Faber of Larchmont, who had taken time out from a mergers and acquisitions practice to raise her three children, first heard about IKEA’s plans two years ago when she visited a City Park woman she had used as a seamstress and a babysitter. “It was very upsetting to them,” said Faber. “They didn’t have any idea how our legal system worked.” Faber promised to find somebody to help the City Park people. “What did I go to law school [for] if not to help people like this?” she asked herself. Through contacts on a local community board, Faber was referred to the Social Justice Center at the Pace University School of Law in White Plains, which immediately assumed a very active role in what its leaders saw as a fight for “environmental justice.” “I told them that I couldn’t promise a result, but I could promise one hell of a fight,” said Randolph M. Scott-McLaughlin, director of the center, who called IKEA’s plans “an outrage.” HELP FROM PACE Scott-McLaughlin is an advocate of what he calls “community-based lawyering” who believes that “the best way to win cases is not in the courtroom but on the street.” His strategy in dealing with adversaries is to “carry a big stick and show it to them.” The Social Justice Center director argued that forcing out the City Park residents would violate their “civil rights” to live in an integrated neighborhood. “We were ready to sue and tie this up for years,” Scott-McLaughlin said. The Pace program also helped to coordinate the review by anti-IKEA activists of the company’s environmental impact statement, parceling out sections of a document that included 750 printed pages and another 7,000 on CD-ROM. Davis, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, was assigned to evaluate the project’s architectural impact. Like many lawyers involved in the effort, she had to master legal standards far removed from her own professional experience. Before IKEA, “I knew how to put people in jail and how get people out of jail.” “We learned a lot real fast,” said Bialo, who coordinated Larchmont’s response. Larchmont, Mamaroneck and New Rochelle all hired attorneys to make sure that New York State’s complicated environmental review process was followed to the letter. The use of outside land use attorneys and other consultants is routine in such reviews. The three communities each spent more than $100,000. New Rochelle’s tab was picked up by IKEA, as is required by state law. Zarin’s role under SEQRA was to assemble “accurate and complete information to ensure that there was a reasonable and rational discussion” of the city’s urban renewal proposal and the IKEA development. Zarin’s client was “lead agency” for the SEQRA review, so he could not argue “the merits of the case.” That was left to IKEA. Moreover, many of the project’s opponents, who threatened lawsuits before the DEIS was even completed, “did not seem prepared to let the process go forward.” The Mount Kisco, N.Y., law firm of Shamberg, Maxwell, Hocherman, Davis & Hollis advised IKEA on issues related to the environmental review, land acquisition and litigation. Fred Koelsch, a former New Rochelle corporate counsel who was IKEA’s contact, said that he was surprised by “the level of emotion” shown by IKEA foes at the public hearing. He said that the opponents “obviously put their time in” and had “a well-thought-out strategy,” but he added that New Rochelle’s council and mayor were effective in separating emotional from factual arguments against the project. City officials’ performance was “all we could have hoped for.” Mamaroneck hired the firm of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker “to do everything we could to insure that the town had a voice in the decision,” said Robert A. Spolzino of the firm’s White Plains office. Spolzino said that Mamaroneck initially tried to work with New Rochelle for the SEQRA process, but “that didn’t really prove to be successful. The city and town bring different values to this.” New Rochelle wanted the tax revenues that the project would bring. The town would not gain revenues, but it was concerned its residents’ quality of life could be jeopardized. Under SEQRA, Mamaroneck had the right to participate in the review process, but the town was frustrated that it would have no real say over the result. Spolzino said that the town was concerned that New Rochelle could impose the development on its neighbors. Therefore, Spolzino drafted, and Mamaroneck passed, a local law that would require town approval for large developments “in areas that abut, adjoin or are adjacent to the town” even when the projects are located totally within another municipality such as New Rochelle. CHALLENGE TO MEASURE Both New Rochelle and IKEA have challenged Mamaroneck’s action in New York’s state supreme court. The New Rochelle suit was thrown out as moot on Friday by Justice Peter M. Leavitt. The law is a major break from New York’s “home rule” tradition of land use planning. A court victory for Mamaroneck would be a “tragedy,” Zarin said. Zarin said that IKEA’s project raised “legitimate environmental concerns,” such as weekend traffic. He insisted that opponents exaggerated other effects such as weekday traffic, threats to school children, and pollution of Long Island Sound. He claimed that City Park residents, far from feeling pressured by the city and IKEA, were glad to sell. Many in New Rochelle actually backed IKEA but were reluctant to speak out at the hearings because “they did not want to get heckled,” he said. “If anybody thinks that, their eyes and ears were closed throughout the hearings,” said Stephen L. Kass of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn, who represented Larchmont. Kass reached back to the Vietnam War for an analogy to describe the stakes in the debate. Like the Marine officer who destroyed a village “in order to save it,” the only project proposed to save the “blighted” City Park “would have destroyed that area,” Kass said. In any case, Kass said, New Rochelle had not identified “in a candid way” whether tax revenues or neighborhood revitalization was the purpose of its urban renewal project, a point echoed by Spolzino. He argued, in a presentation that WRAIN’s Horing said was “biting and to the point,” that the DEIS had not taken the “hard look” at environmental impacts required by the statute and court precedents and had not evaluated alternative sites for IKEA’s project. IKEA concluded that to alleviate community concerns it would have to build new exit ramps but was advised that approvals were a “lengthy, uncertain and complicated process.” Moreover, to justify the expense of building the ramps, the company would have to construct a larger store than the mayor wanted. “We’re in the business of building retail stores,” Gdula said. “We try to open two to three new stores a year.” The New Rochelle project no longer met the company’s “business objectives,” so it “decided to turn our attention elsewhere.” “It was a business decision, not a legal decision,” said Koelsch. He said that the project would have been good for New Rochelle, and his one regret is that the opponents “got ahead” of the company and its lawyers. Although IKEA has pulled out, New Rochelle officials say they remain committed to urban renewal in the City Park neighborhood. IKEA eventually will sell its land to whatever company or companies is selected to develop the area. The SEQRA process is sometimes criticized by developers as time consuming and costly, but Gdula said that the law served its intended purpose by airing community concerns. Kass, who has represented municipalities, corporations and non-profit groups, said that the review process does not stand in the way of well-planned and well-executed projects. “I do not believe SEQRA is a death knell for projects, just as I don’t think that it is a charade,” he said. As for the role of lawyers in IKEA’s final decision, Kass said that “lawyers like to believe that we are useful, and I think that we have been useful in this case.” Randolph M. Scott-McLaughlin, director of Social Justice Center at the Pace University School of Law, called IKEA’s plans “an outrage.” Jeff Storey is a free-lance writer and a law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

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