A judge has, at least for now, dashed Brighton activists’ final hope of forcing developer Daniel Daniele to scale back Daniele Family Cos.’ Whole Foods Plaza project.
Though the Monroe Avenue plaza is virtually completed, a spokesperson for activists opposed to the development vows to continue the fight.
In a ruling handed down Wednesday, state Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi turned down the activists’ bid to scale back the plaza to accommodate a walking trail that crosses the rear of the property. The ruling comes after Odirisi dismissed 22 other objections activist groups previously raised to the project.
This week’s decision follows a December bench trial, the last of numerous pleadings and proceedings in the now five-year-old case.
“We are pleased after almost 7 years the lawsuits have finally come to an end,” said Danny Daniele, president and owner of Daniele Family Cos., in a statement.
While the court fight has raged, Daniele Family Cos. continued a buildout of the plaza, which now includes a Starbucks, several non-retail tenants and a nearly complete Whole Foods grocery store.
“This verdict was always headed to an appeals court regardless of who won,” said Brighton Grassroots spokesperson Howie Jacobson in a statement. “We now look forward to quickly moving to the next phase of this litigation where, we believe, we have very strong arguments.”
Among previously dismissed objections anti-Whole Foods Plaza activists raised were claims that the town of Brighton wrongly approved the project.
The activist groups’ remaining objections centered on the contention that the Auburn Trail, a former railroad bed that Rochester Gas & Electric acquired in the 1980s, is now used as a hiking and biking trail and should be preserved as a public trust.
The town of Brighton had previously made moves toward incorporating the trail in its planning process but had met strong neighborhood objections, Odorisi notes in the ruling.
While state law allows for public-trust designation of appropriate parklands, Odorisi found that the less than half a mile stretch of the two-mile long trail that sits directly behind the Whole Foods Plaza’s parking lot had crossed parking areas before Daniele undertook the Whole Foods project.
The judge concluded that deliveries to the grocery store and other traffic would not substantially interfere with hikers’ use of the trail and that plaza opponents’ arguments to the contrary were “unpersuasive in the end.”
The now newly upgraded trail sits just beyond the Whole Foods Plaza parking lot and remains in use by hikers and bicyclists.
Projected to open later this year, the Whole Foods market would be the first Rochester-area store for the upscale, Amazon.com-owned grocery chain. It sits a mile or less from Wegmans’ Pittsford store.
While not predicating his ruling on Wegmans’ involvement in the case, Odorisi notes in a footnote to the ruling that Wegmans backed and financially supported opposition to the plaza, a fact only revealed by Jacobson under cross examination midway through the lengthy court fight.
“The most riveting testimony came from Howie Jacobson when he broke down and admitted under oath that he lied to the public and was in fact paid by Wegmans to keep Whole Foods out of Rochester,” Daniele said. “We were astonished to learn just how much Wegmans has paid Howie and all the many lawsuits over these past 4 years; I believe it was in the millions of dollars.
“Although Wegmans will likely appeal the judge’s decision, Whole Foods is now free to open early this spring. Nevertheless, we are happy in the end, truth and justice prevailed.”
While he applauds neighborhood activism “for legitimate purposes,” Odorisi wrote, “Brighton Grassroots’ spokesman testified—only under cross examination—that he was a paid lobbyist for Wegman’s, a Whole Foods competitor, who also paid (Brighton Grassroots’) legal bills.
“(Jacobson’s) testimony added nothing to (Brighton Grassroots’) case and only detracted from the same given his newly disclosed credibility factor. Further incredible was his adamant denial that the amenity trail was enjoyable, instead preferring a pothole filled, muddy railroad bed.”
Wegmans has previously denied that fear of competition moved it to support Brighton neighbors’ opposition to the Whole Foods Plaza, stating that its concerns center on increased traffic the Whole Foods Plaza would bring to the stretch of Monroe Avenue both groceries share.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].