WOONSOCKET — A Superior Court lawsuit that prevented CVS/Caremark from building a new flagship store in Chipman's Corner has been decided in favor of the homegrown pharmacy giant, ending a legal battle that's lasted nearly three years.
Judge Michael Silverstein issued a 52-page decision addressing five consolidated lawsuits attacking various permits city officials issued in support of the proposed store. The defendants included the Zoning Board, the Planning Board and the City Council.
Homeowners in the area were widely opposed to the proposal, citing increased traffic and public safety issues, among others. But the only plaintiff whose name appeared on the lawsuit was abutter Ron Genereux of 41 Dana St., a man in his mid-50s whose property CVS offered to buy for part of its construction site.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Genereux said he was disappointed in the ruling, but he does not anticipate appealing to the state Supreme Court — his only remaining recourse.
“I don't think so at this point,” said Genereux. “There's a cost involved. It gets tougher as you keep going up the ladder.”
At issue is CVS/Caremark's plan for a 12,900-square-foot store with a drive-through window at the corner of Cass Avenue and Mendon Road. The busy crossroads is zoned for limited commercial uses, but it is still heavily residential, and many neighbors complained the pharmacy chain's proposal would overwhelm the character of the area.
As part of the proposal, CVS said it envisions shutting down an antiquated pharmacy opposite Landmark Medical Center, at the other end of Cass Avenue.
“We're pleased with the decision,” said Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS. “Our focus has always been on being able to bring a new store into the area that will better serve the community. We've always maintained that a larger, freestanding store would help us accomplish that. We've simply outgrown the other store on Cass Avenue.”
Plans are to begin construction this summer and open the new store no later than April 2012, said DeAngelis.
Even if Genereux marshaled the financial resources to appeal, CVS's lawyers have informed the company the deadline for filing the paperwork passed on Tuesday – 30 days after Silverstein's ruling was issued on April 4.
The roots of the dispute date back to December 2008, when the Planning Board, under pressure from abutters, rejected CVS's initial proposal for a boxy, bunker-like pharmacy at the site. Months later, the company returned with a modified plan for a store with softer lines, setting the stage for a string of favorable decisions by city officials.
Genereux challenged them all in lawsuits suggesting CVS was the beneficiary of a rigged game. His lawyer, Kelly Nickson-Morris, contended the city cut corners on CVS's behalf to benefit a powerful corporate citizen. Headquartered in Highland Corporate Park, CVS/Caremark employs some 3,600 people in the city, better than half its statewide workforce.
“It's tough being in a company town when you're not the company,” Nickson-Morris wrote in her final legal papers in the case. “Within four short months — unheard of for a major land development project in Rhode Island — the city of Woonsocket, through its legislative and quasi-judicial bodies, had held nine public hearings (including administrative appeals) and issued four approvals, namely, a zone change, zoning variances, master and preliminary plan, to its number one corporate citizen, local mega-pharmacy chain CVS, for its major land development project.”
She said “we do not object to Woonsocket providing CVS with red carpet service; we do object to Woonsocket ignoring constitutional and statutory principles in order to provide such service...”
But Silverstein said that based on the record from all the local proceedings, he could find no evidence that the city's regulatory officials did anything wrong.
“After due consideration of all the evidence, together with the arguments advanced by counsel at the hearing and in their memoranda, the court finds that the Planning Board's decision to grant master plan and preliminary approval were supported by competent evidence and not the result of clear abuse or error,” he wrote. “Further, in view of the great deference afforded by this court in administrative appeals, the court upholds the (Zoning) Board of Appeals affirmation of those decisions.”
The judge's decision essentially ratified the city's position on the actions of its boards and commissions, said City Solicitor Joseph P. Carroll, lead attorney for the city.
“As counselor for the city I had to make sure the various panels were performing their duties in a procedurally correct manner, and the judge's decision affirms the process.”
In order to assemble a parcel of more than two acres for the new, state-of-the-art pharmacy, CVS purchased and merged at least five individually-owned lots, some with houses on them that were demolished. Genereux said CVS initially offered to buy his house but later withdrew the offer.
While many neighbors voiced opposition to the CVS plan, Genereux declined to say whether he had any help financing the lawsuit or how much it cost.
But he acknowledged yesterday that the lawsuit was a high-stakes proposition that, for now, seems to have left him in a quandary.
In addition to legal bills, he says, he faces the prospect of living in a home surrounded by asphalt and walls, overlooking the pharmacy's drive-through – a home that, in the end, will certainly be worth less than what CVS initially offered for it.
Asked why he took such a gamble, Genereux said he believed in the righteousness of his cause and thought others would see it his way. After all, he said, when planners rejected CVS's initial plan in 2008, it seemed like a promising sign.
“We won the first time,” he said.