Small Town Sebastopol Sued by Giant CVS Pharmacy

Classic David vs. Goliath Story Continues

On Christmas Eve, when most were at home with family and friends or out-of-town, a summons was served at the Sebastopol City Hall. The giant CVS Pharmacy sued the City and its elected officials.

Sebastopol’s recently elected City Council voted unanimously, 5-0, on December 18 to enact a temporary, 45-day moratorium against drive-through operations. CVS seeks to nullify that moratorium and proceed with plans that it has been working on since 2009, but which have not been fully approved and permitted, to build two stores with drive-throughs.

A small town with fewer than 8,000 people, Sebastopol is in Sonoma County, Northern California, in what has historically been known as the Redwood Empire. Some also now call it Wine Country, which attracts people from all over. At the cross-roads of two highways, Sebastopol suffers increasing traffic problems, especially in its clogged downtown, which is where CVS wants to build.

CVS, its partner Chase Bank, and their Pennsylvania-based developer Armstrong have been trying to convince Sebastopol to allow them to move their two stores, now located at the edge of town, to a prominent downtown corner. A super-majority have opposed that move, for various reasons; only a few have supported it, mainly because of financial gain and family loyalties.

CVS claimed in a letter to the Council before the December 18 decision that the ordinance is an “arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory act by the City.” CVS feels targeted by the Council’s new moratorium, though it refers to all new drive-throughs.

CVS’s lawsuit complains that it “has been damaged” because they have an “investment of millions of dollars.” It’s all about money for CVS/Chase, whereas for the people of Sebastopol and their elected officials the issue is having local control and deciding what would be best for the residents.

“The City has every right to reevaluate its laws…and a right to enact a moratorium while it studies those laws,” according to City Attorney Larry McLaughlin, also Acting City Manager. He explained that a moratorium is not a ban, adding, “It is to maintain the status quo while the Planning Commission and City Council study the subject. Studying a subject does not necessarily lead to a ban.”

A defiant McLaughlin later noted, “We’re not backing down.” He admitted that a defense of the City is likely to cost up to $100,000, which is a lot of money for a small town.

Council member Patrick Slayter, an architect, put the topic of drive-throughs on the agenda of previous Council on November 20.  He is the only remaining member on the new Council who voted to approve the architectural design of the CVS/Chase/Armstrong project in the town’s urban core. Sarah Gurney, an attorney, had originally suggested a drive-through moratorium.

“Drive-throughs are outmoded and with our limited urban space, I am not sure devoting traffic lanes to drive-throughs is the best use of our limited space.” In an email, he later wrote “Good urban design is an effective way to move away from the automobile.”

Mayor Michael Kyes explained that “the urgency order came about because if we didn’t have it, we could potentially have a dozen project applications come in with drive-throughs.”

Why might the 18th largest corporation in the U.S. become so involved in the governance of a small town. Such interference by mega-corporations in the running of municipalities is not unusual. Some corporations–such as Wal-Mart and Monsanto–are even more powerful than some smaller nations, which they also threaten in order to maximize profits, their only concern.

“These corporations use their money, influence over government and ‘constitutional rights’ to impose their will on communities all over the world,” writes Abraham Entin, founder of Move to Amend Sonoma County. This grassroots, national movement seeks a constitutional amendment that states “Corporations are not people, and money is not speech.”  Otherwise, corporations will find ways to get around local regulations and use their substantial power to control events, says Entin.

Slightly before CVS/Chase proposed their development, another project was proposed a couple of blocks away on a property ten times as large. The Barlow Project developers were constructive, creative, and cooperative with the City and the community. Their project was approved and is nearly complete. CVS has been combative and threatening; it tried to ignore and dominate the City and its people, whereas The Barlow welcomed their feedback and made real modifications in their plans to meet the felt needs of the town’s people.

Sebastopol has been described as a “green town” in the New York Times and elsewhere. The most popular car in the area seems to be a Prius hybrid.

Sebastopol has been a magnet for people interested in issues such as sustainability, reducing fossil fuel use and increasing renewable energy, curbing chaotic climate change, and organic farming.

At the same City Council meeting where the drive-thru moratorium was passed, a Vulnerable Users Protection Ordinance also received a 5-0 approval. Proposed by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and brought forward by Councilmember Slayter, it gives pedestrians and cyclists legal recourse against drivers who threaten or harass them.

A number of groups and hundreds of individuals contributed recently to successful campaigns to elect two candidates who oppose the CVS/Chase move, Robert Jacob and John Eder, and defeat the two candidates who supported the move, incumbent Kathleen Schaeffer and former mayor Kathy Austin. Those groups included Sebastopol Tomorrow, Small Town Sebastopol Committee, Sonoma County Conservation Action, and Occupy Sebastopol.

“It is key that municipalities be free to design their towns,” said long-time activist and former Planning Commissioner Helen Shane, “and not be shoved around by formula organizations eager for a foothold in towns, large and small, across the U.S.” Other communities throughout the U.S. are apparently struggling against CVS/Chase expansionism.

Five days after the Christmas Eve summons, people from around Sonoma County gathered at the weekly Farmers Market in the town’s plaza, a couple of blocks from where CVS wants to re-locate. When asked how they felt about CVS suing Sebastopol, responses included following:

It disgusts me that CVS would go against the will of the community. It is a shame when corporations try to force themselves on towns. It will cost all the people of Sebastopol a lot of time, effort, and money that we do not have.”

— Caverly Whittemore

CVS needs to stay where they are. To move would be to disrupt the trade of smaller businesses in town. The more they do stuff like this, the less likely I am to support them.

— Dwight Sims

They sue as a scare tactic. Then cities back down. CVS is not a moral company. They get sued all over the place.

— Kathie Haynes

CVS is oblivious to the needs of our community. We do not want them here. They are trying to bulldoze us.

— Amy Schiff

CVS wants to plant their trading post in the middle of our town to colonize and exploit us. Their business model is not likely to survive here.

— Lawrence Jaffe

Since CVS is not wanted downtown, they could take a small fraction of the money they are spending and improve what they are doing where they are now.

— Marty Roberts

A local municipality has the right to impose restrictions on behalf of its citizens. This lawsuit is an aggressive over-reach.

—  Kevin Dawn

This makes me sad. Nobody I know wants CVS downtown. We just want them to go away. People are starting to get angry, which will not help their business. This small town will continue to fight. They picked the wrong place to go after.

—  Gretchen Savidge

Armstrong Development Vice-President William McDermott was approached for comments, but did not respond before press time.

Among the strategies being discussed to deal with the suit by various groups and in the streets are the following:

1. Set up a legal defense fund to support the city’s defense.

2. Picket, leaflet, and boycott the current location of CVS and Chase, including pulling prescriptions and moving bank accounts. Occupy Sebastopol has already called for a January 19, Sat., 2-4, peaceful informational picket at the current CVS/Chase location.

3. Civil disobedience.

After three years of struggle, CVS vs. Sebastopol may emerge as a classic David vs. Goliath story.

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