September 2007 seems like a decade ago. But it was just yesterday when a small group of local residents became aware that a major highway discounter was making application to move into Millburn, at the eastern edge of the Downtown Shopping District - a Special Improvement District.
A small group of concerned citizens and their large number of supporters and financial backers dug in for a protracted struggle to preserve the quality of retailing in our Downtown District. The owner of the "Gateway Center," understandably seeking a tenant who could afford a high rent, and the tenant, Petsmart, developed a strategy of their own.
During the next nine months, a pitched battle was waged between a grass roots organization, called Millburn United, Inc., and a 4 billion dollar organization with more than 1,000 highway and mall warehouses for pet services and retail items. Petsmart brought before the Zoning Board of Assessment a phalanx of experts in the fields of sound, health, traffic, sewage, veterinary medicine, environment, law, marketing, and air conditioning systems. Its experts were experienced and polished. These hired guns flew into town, made their cases, impressed certain parties with their breadth of knowledge, and flew back to Arizona or other parts of the country. In addition, a prominent local town planner was employed to provide the possible final knockout punch needed for application approval.
Millburn United employed the services of a land use attorney, but provided no expert witnesses other than its own members. Its members and supporters studied the many areas of concern and took the stand as admitted amateurs. However, one Millburn United supporter, a former financial analyst, prepared a strictly professional case to prove that Petsmart was principally a service organization and not a retailer, thereby excluding that business from the retail category required for a B2 application. That 'expert', unfortunately, did not have an opportunity to testify. Nor did a large number of supporters who would deliver final comments, at the pleasure of the Zoning Board Chair. Some have lived in this Township for more than half of a century, hoping to argue for maintaining our small town atmosphere where folks communicate and empathize.
Millburn United's members and supporters presented evidence of a plethora of poor treatment of animals, diseases which ran rampant in certain stores, poor employee pay and morale, and the mantra of corporate veterinary medicine. There were stories of pets dying in the kennels, parrot fever infecting humans, and runaway dogs. We said to ourselves and each other, this company cannot be of any benefit to our Township. It was obvious that this Petsmart would be a regional animal shopping center for many miles around us. As the potential marketing radius grew larger, we envisioned a more massive category killing field.
We visited Petsmarts, from as far as Philadelphia and also those on Routes 22 and 10. Friends and relatives visited Petsmarts in faraway locales. Electing to bypass the formal 'tours,' we entered the stores, spoke to employees, and viewed the kennels, which the company calls 'hotels' for pets. We saw signs along Route 10 stating jobs were available at $8.00 - $10.00 per hour. These experiences confirmed that this was not an appropriate store for our town, and we were providing a service for this Township.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment had adjusted its schedule to provide monthly special meetings in the Hartshorn School. This move happened as a result of the tremendous outpouring of community support for Millburn United during the October 2007 meeting, in Town Hall. Over 150 residents crammed the meeting room and, as a result, the Millburn Fire Marshall ruled that the hearing must be shut down due to overcrowding and a resultant safety issue.
During the campaign, almost 200 contributions flowed in to Millburn United, Inc. to support the anti-Petsmart fight. It was, indeed, a very difficult fight. Rumors abounded and some very discouraging events took place. Our informational signs posted around town were confiscated by the Millburn Police. Even Petsmart officials - lawyers - were seen taking down our signs. The Downtown Millburn Development Alliance took no position relative to this "Downtown" issue in spite of the fact that Petsmart boasted that it is a 'category killer' company. Millburn United understood that organization's neutral stance and practice of flaccid passivity.
A category killer is a company whose motivation is to either buy out or undersell similar businesses within a specific radius. Therefore, at least five local businesses, including at least one veterinarian, would be among the victims of the huge Petsmart operation. When certain Petsmart supporters spoke of free-market competition as the basis of our capitalistic system, we reminded them that we are a small town whose Master Plan calls for relatively small, quality businesses. Petsmart was incongruous to our Master Plan.
Petsmart is a highway operation. In fact, when we asked its representatives where there is a similar model, located in an upscale, small town, it cited such locations as northern Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, and Los Angeles. Evidently, Petsmart people did not understand the history, present, or future of our great Township. We have 19,000 residents, not 1,900,000. Millburn United did not want its mega kennel and huge store located within our town limits.
During the struggle and gallons of Diner coffee, we deliberated the possibilities of a WalMart, Burger King, or other discounter moving into our shopping district. Heck, if they can pay the rent, why not do whatever is possible to accommodate them. These landlords are generally not residents of this Township and see it as their cash cow - nothing more, nothing less. Again, they are not concerned with our Town's history, present, or future. Hopefully, long overdue ordinances crafted to prevent the presence of big box discounters will finally be approved by this Township Committee.
Quite abruptly, in May 2007, Petsmart indicated it would not attend the June meeting. It requested a delay. The Zoning Board informed us that no meeting would be scheduled until possibly September. At that time, Petsmart continued to absent itself. This led to a request by Millburn United to require Petsmart to commit to continuing the application process. By December, it was clear that Petsmart had turned its back on the application and the Township of Millburn would be spared a monolithic kennel located at the Gateway to the SID.
Millburn United appreciated the professionalism of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Perched on the Hartshorn auditorium stage, it was always under a microscope. When supporters became irate or redundant, the Chair did what was expected of him. This issue happened to arouse certain passions, because those involved saw the danger of inviting enormous discounters into our SID.
At the end of the nine contentious months, Millburn United provided extremely convincing arguments in land use law, town planning, community preservation, and enforcement of its Master Plan. In addition, it generated a town-wide synergy which brought supporters to meetings during the darkest, coldest evenings of the winter of 2007-8, to speak their piece and reveal visceral community spirit. Also, at no time did our organization derive benefit from Township agencies or resources. Since we were committed to remaining apolitical, we steered clear of party alliances, especially during the pending November election.
It is of interest that Millburn United did not have backing of any public official nor did it receive advice or strategic information from any Township agency or commission. In the absence of such support, it goes without saying that rumors abounded about back door support for the applicant and landlord. Township officials seemed fully prepared to welcome the big-box and its huge kennel into the Gateway of our SID.
In retrospect, Millburn United and its supporters were mystified that the Township required just one variance for the enormous Petsmart operation - a variance for the kennel (hotel). The Township seemed quite casual in accepting a number of services in Petsmart as ancillary, including grooming, training, veterinary hospital, and 'doggie day care.' We considered the process faulty, at best.
We occasionally heard the argument that any tenant would be preferable to an unoccupied store. "Just look at Saks!" However, this is not a credible comparison. Saks' property is owned by Royal Ahold, a Netherlands-based multi-billion dollar international company. Its application to build a Super Stop and Shop on the premises met with widespread opposition from the Townships of Springfield (where it is mostly located) and Millburn, plus an organized resident movement. Royal Ahold has fought through the various Boards and in the court system for more than fifteen years.
We would hope that the management company at 187 Millburn Avenue can recruit an appropriate tenant, within the parameters set by the Master Plan, and the community, including Millburn United, can welcome it with open arms. Its landlord has proven in the past that he can attract favorable tenants.
Millburn United is proud to have stepped up to the plate to represent the best interests of this community in helping block potential commercial, health, safety, environmental, and animal rights issues. If any reader would like additional information on Petsmart's record in these areas, start by accessing the following sites: www.consumeraffairs.com/pets/petsmart.html and http://www.peta.org/
The protracted struggle was led by four residents who were not adjacent homeowners to the Gateway property and had not previously met one another. One member resides north of the Wyoming School, two are from South Mountain Estates, and another from Short Hills, as was our finance advisor. The vast majority of donations were generated from Short Hills and the animal-oriented businesses in the area. This was a genuine town-wide grassroots movement and proved that residents can make a difference in our ongoing struggle to maintain the endangered quality of life of our community. We are proud to have been part of this historic effort and of service to the Township of Millburn.