CVS Pharmacy Embattled Coast-to-Coast

Cities from coast-to-coast continue to resist the country-wide expansionist plans of the largest pharmacy in the United States, CVS. In a recent victory for activists, CVS abandoned plans to open a store in Nantucket, Massachusetts, bowing to pressure from a petition with over 4500 signatures.

Family physician Greg Hinson, M.D., started that petition, according to the Boston Business Journal, November 21, 2012. “CVS to Homogenize Nantucket: So We Look Like the Rest of the World” headlined a November 15 article in the Nantucket Chronicle by Georgia Raysman. She contended that it would be “the end of Nantucket as a unique American place,” if CVS replaced the closed Grand Union grocery store.

“It is vital to protect Nantucket’s historical charm by preventing a major company such as CVS to move in,” adds Tomw at the Chronicle. He describes it as a “horrible idea.” Raysman agrees, “Local pharmacies, local toy stories, local sellers of sundries all will suffer from CVS’s presence. Everyone’s livelihood out here” would be threatened.

In Lexington, Kentucky, a controversial downtown CVS project was defeated. Instead, a three-story mixed-use building was decided upon, according to the local Herald-Tribune of February 23, 2011.

“Residents Tell CVS ‘Not Here,’” headlines an article in the Carrboro Citizen of December 23, 2010. That North Carolina town continues to take to the streets to struggle against CVS moving downtown from another site. “We’re not anti-CVS, we’re just against it right there in downtown,” said homeowner Richard Jaimeyfield. “This is not the right spot for the highest volume CVS in the state,” added resident Jeff Herrick. “It’s a very difficult intersection,” admitted the town’s Transportation Board chair Charlie Hileman.

In Byram, New Jersey, CVS plans to raze a 200-year-old landmark. In Dundee, Nebraska, CVS seeks to raze 75% of an historic neighborhood. A pattern of CVS wanting to locate itself at key downtown intersections, thus maximizing sales, at the expense of safety, traffic, historical, and other concerns of locals.

CVS has 7,400 stores and plans for more. Though less than the 8000 Walgreen Drugstores, its competitor “posted just half the earnings of CVS in the third quarter of 2012,” reports Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak. She describes CVS as a “voracious retail monster” that “has been taking over America.” D.C.’s Woodley Park is one of the many communities resisting CVS.

Meanwhile, near the Northern California coast, small town Sebastopol in Sonoma County has been struggling since 2009 against CVS and its frequent partner, Chase, the U.S.’s largest bank. They want to move from the edge of town to an abandoned car dealership in the downtown core. Its opposition also has a petition at the same Change.org site that won the Nantucket victory.

Some Nantucket residents signed Sebastopol’s petition and Dr. Hinson left the following message: “It is important to preserve the character of small towns like Sebastopol!.” Over 600 people have signed this petition, many adding comments worth reading. The first signers were from Sebastopol; more recently people from elsewhere also have been signing and adding comments, as stories of local struggles against CVS go national.

Sebastopol’s town slogan “Local Flavor, Global Vision” would not be exemplified by CVS, which does not fit into a unique, sustainable downtown. “A wide majority of Sebastopolians believed that the CVS project was bad for local business, traffic, and ecology,” reported Jonathan Greenberg in the daily Press Democrat of the nearby urban center of Santa Rosa on January 4. “We voted accordingly, electing two candidates who vigorously opposed the project.”

So on Christmas Eve, in a Scrooge-like action that threatened Sebastopol’s holiday joy, CVS served a lawsuit on the City. By a unanimous 5-0 decision on December 18, the Council agreed to a 45-day urgency moratorium on all new drive-thrus in town. Wanting two drive-thrus, CVS felt that it was targeted. It contends that the Ordinance is “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” Sebastopol has 30 days to respond.

“We’re not trying to stop CVS,” City Attorney and Acting City Manager Larry McLaughlin said. “We are studying the issue of drive-thrus in general.” The City is not proposing a ban.

A determined McLaughlin felt that Sebastopol was likely to win the lawsuit. “California laws give long-standing support to the study of issues such as drive-thrus. The courts give deference to municipalities for such moratoriums.” Sebastopol already bans drive-thru restaurants. However, it may cost Sebastopol up to $100,000 to defend itself; this disturbs many residents, who would prefer that such funds be used to support City services.

Sebastopol is also currently studying what Nantucket already has in place–a ban on “formula businesses.” Chain stores are already regulated nearby, including in Calistoga and Sonoma.

“Our town wants to maintain its unique, small-town identity,” observed recently-elected Vice-Mayor Robert Jacob. Sebastopol is also considering a solar energy requirement for new homes and businesses. Many residents favor getting beyond an auto-centric approach to transportation and supporting more walking, biking, trains, and public transit.

“This same unfortunate scenario is played across our country,” according to Abraham Entin of Move to Amend.  “The issue ultimately comes down to the power giant corporations have over government on every level. Even when local governments try to defy them, corporations exert their ‘constitutional rights’ to thwart the will of humans and their elected representatives.  We need to make it clear via an Amendment that it is only ‘natural persons’ who have rights, not artificial entities such as corporations.”

A peaceful, information picket by various community groups, including Occupy Sebastopol, has been organized for January 19, Saturday,from 2-4 p.m. at the current location of CVS and Chase in the town’s only shopping center, the Redwood Market. “It takes a village to stop CVS,” said Thomas Morabito outside Occupy’s remaining tent in the plaza. He describes Sebastopol’s new City Council as a “dream team.” Tim Ryan added, “We want to put pressure on CVS to drop their lawsuit.”

“My concern is that CVS/Chase would be too close to our only hospital,” commented nurse Eileen Morabito. “I’ve watched ambulances trying to get through that busy corner being delayed. With two drive-thrus the delays would be greater and could be a matter of life or death.” She added, “We support community need, not corporate greed.”

A Sebastopol physician, Gary Pace, M.D., commented as follows upon signing the petition, “CVS already has an established site. This area would be better served by something more congruent with the town’s character.”

The picket was announced on WaccoBB.net, a local online bulletin board with over 10,000 subscribers and many other readers. Long-time activist Dian Hardy responded as follows: “I plan to be there and will bring my cut-up CVS card to present to the store.”

“I haven’t seen anything that has stirred up such deep, widespread and persistent emotion as the CVS/Chase project,” says Barry Chertov, founder and Moderator of WaccoBB.net. “There’s been over 500 posts on the topic so far. It’s understandable, as it feels like an invasion of corporate raiders outfitted in a generic suburban development in the middle of our beloved downtown that will export our wealth and create major traffic issues.”

The January 19 protest was on the agenda of a recent meeting of two-dozen activists from four Sonoma County Occupy groups. “CVS has shown with this lawsuit that they are a corporate bully,” commented Tim Nonn of Occupy Petaluma. “This protest will be a test case for a coordinated county-wide action. Perhaps we could have actions against other CVS stores in Sonoma County.”

CVS has been trying since 2009 to receive the permissions it needs, but still lacks various demolition, building, traffic, and design permissions and permits necessary to go forward. In contrast, another development, The Barlow Project, begun at about the same time a couple of blocks away on a property ten times as large, has achieved the necessary permits.

“The Barlow Project in its many stages was essentially approved as submitted, leading to the necessary approvals to facilitate today’s near-completion” explained Bob Beauchamp of Sebastopol’s Design Review Board. “They were sympathetic, cooperative, and constructive all along the way, resulting in a design that is exemplary for our small community.”

CVS, in contrast, has been combative and arrogant with the City and its residents, trying to bully its way into downtown. “In my 4 years on the DRB, the design of the CVS project is the only one we have rejected,” Beauchamp added.

The developer of The Barlow, Barney Aldridge, originally planned to build 300 condos in the old apple cannery he bought in 2006. The community resisted. Aldridge eventually “followed the old adage that if he couldn’t beat the town, he’d join it,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle on January 8, 2012. He decided to build a business park, which will open this April, mainly with artisan producers of food and crafts. He maintained the agriculture diversity of the area, preserved the cannery and the decades-old apple processing plant.

CVS could learn from studying how The Barlow won the town over—by listening to people, instead of bullying them.

A minority of Sebastopol residents do favor CVS/Chase, as well as other chain stores, which can offer more options and convenience. They tended to vote for the two candidates in the last election who favored CVS and lost. Editorials in the corporate daily Press Democrat have supported CVS/Chase, as have most of the letters to the editor they have published.

The embattled CVS has been, and is being, sued in numerous places coast-to-coast, by government regulators and by its employees and customers. It has lost some lawsuits and won others. Being involved in costly lawsuits is business as usual for CVS’s lawyers.

CVS settled a lawsuit this year for $13.75 million. It was accused of violating California toxic disposal laws, according to a December 14, 2012, San Francisco Chronicle story. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced the settlement. She participated in the suit, along with 43 California DAs and City Attorneys.

The charges were for failures regarding safe storage, handling and disposing of sharps waste, pharmaceutical and pharmacy waste, photo waste containing silver, and hazardous waste generated from spills and customer returns of hazardous products.

CVS, based in Rhode Island, settled a suit by assistant store managers for improper payment by paying $34 million, according to the Providence Journal for April 23, 2012. CVS has settled other large suits in Florida, Connecticut, Texas, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, back in Sebastopol the largest weekly gathering is at the Sunday Farmers’ Market, outside, rain or shine. The CVS lawsuit has been a hot conversation there, including the following comments on January 6:

Drive-thrus in the center of town would be insane. They would be in the place where there is the most traffic density.

— Michael Litle

The suit is ridiculous. It is the city’s decision. We have an elected government and they have the right to decide this.

— Bryan Schuler

Big Corporations take away our money and our spirit. They use money and power to squash small town intimacy.

—  Sharon Kaiser

This is incredibly selfish. A lawsuit is not the way to make friends and customers. What do they gain from suing? It sounds malicious and feels abusive. It is not constructive but feels like punishment. Maybe CVS should ask why there is so much resentment against them.

—  Gabrielle Albright

This is a people power versus corporate power issue. CVS has more money than Sebastopol.

—  Bruce Rhodes

I do not like people idling their cars and polluting our air. We need to make healthy choices now for our future. We need to stop drive-thrus.

— Shakira Pearlman

The contempt for environmental concerns is typical of the corporate mentality, whose only concern is the bottom line. I’m happy that Sebastopol is pushing back.

—  Peggy Karp

We just had an election and have a new, improved City Council. In Sebastopol David can sometimes defeat Goliath. CVS may regret bringing a lawsuit against our small town.

—  Anonymous woman

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.