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Lawsuit has a familiar stench

By Bertram de Souza

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Remember the “chicken s--- caper” that generated some gallows humor about the proposed HomeGoods distribution center on a 290-acre site in Lordstown? Well, it seems that a lawsuit filed in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court has a similar stench to it.

Then, as now, opponents of the project are the instigators. To better understand what’s going on in court, let’s take a stroll (in gum boots) down memory lane.

Last April, farmer Harvey Lutz earned the moniker “party pooper” when he decided to demonstrate to Lordstown residents standing in the way of the $170 million, 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse just how “fowl” things could get.

Lutz, who operates Lutz Farms in this region, owns one of the seven parcels HomeGoods wanted rezoned to industrial. He was on the verge of seeking the zone change when the opposition issued a public warning that a vote of the people would be sought in November if Lordstown Village Council approved the changes.

In response, HomeGoods, a division of TJX Companies Inc., announced it was reassessing its decision to locate the project in the Mahoning Valley.

That’s when farmer Lutz decided to send the detractors a crappy message. He announced plans to establish a huge poultry farm featuring more than 100,000 chickens and lots of feed.

Here’s how Lutz’s offensive (as in nostril-tickling) move was memorialized in this space:

“So, what do you get when you have thousands of birds eating their fill to get them ready for market? That’s right, mountains of stinking, steamy bird ----. When the wind blows, the smell will waft over the homes that the residents are so determined to protect from the HomeGoods distribution center. And it won’t be like walking into a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.”

In an interview with Jordyn Grzelewski, The Vindicator’s business writer, Lutz said, “I thought maybe this would make them think a little bit, at least entertain the idea of TJX.”

But the threat of a steamy, stinking mess in the backyards of the homes in the vicinity of the proposed project didn’t faze the opposition. As one of them told Grzelewski, having thousands of chickens in close proximity to the houses would not be a problem.

Lutz’s (expletive)-kicking threat grabbed headlines. However, the farmer did present a pragmatic reason for his huge chicken coop: He planned to use the manure as fertilizer for the soybean and corn crops he grows on his Warren Township farms. A circle-of-life sort of thing from the Valley’s “party pooper.”

That was in April.

Since then, HomeGoods has remained the object of the Mahoning Valley’s unbounded affection. Elected officials, led by Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill and Congressman Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, business and labor leaders and community activists have joined forces in letting HomeGoods know that a majority of the residents of the region support the project.

There’s a reason proponents aren’t willing to let HomeGoods go: General Motors has refused to publicly commit to the future of its 52-year-old assembly plant in Lordstown.

The Chevrolet Cruze that’s built there was once a top-seller in the company’s fleet. Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Buyers are flocking to crossovers, SUVs and trucks. Given that reality, GM has eliminated two shifts at the Lordstown complex, and the remaining shift is down to 1,500 workers.

It should be recalled that the giant automaker was bailed out with tax dollars when it was on the verge of total collapse. Yet today, the company refuses to commit to another product for Lordstown after the Cruze. The company could walk away from this region without a second thought. Such is the reality of transnational corporate America.

That’s why HomeGoods, with the promise of 1,000 high-paying jobs, is being treated with such tender loving care by most of the Valley.

Indeed, last Tuesday, 77 percent of the 1,331 Lordstown residents who voted in a referendum said they supported the zone changes on the seven parcels to industrial. Village council approved the changes, which prompted the opponents of the project to seek a vote of the people.

The overwhelming support at the polls should have silenced those who have waged a very public battle against HomeGoods. They insist they’re not against the distribution center; they just don’t want it in their backyard.

The opponents contend there are other sites in Lordstown that would meet HomeGoods’ needs, but the company says the seven parcels along Hallock Young and Ellsworth Bailey roads are it.

In a last-ditch effort to derail the project, opponents have gone to court to challenge the timing of the referendum. They argue that a special bill passed in June by the General Assembly that put the special election on a fast track is unconstitutional. They’ve gone to court to have the results set aside.

The lawsuit now before Common Pleas Court Judge Peter Kontos has the same chicken droppings quality as farmer Ludt’s huge poultry farm.

If the opponents sincerely believe that the General Assembly passed an unconstitutional law, why didn’t they go to court to stop the special election from even proceeding?

The answer is clear: They were hedging their bets.

Here’s another question: If the residents of Lordstown had voted against the zone changes approved by village council, would the opponents of the project still have gone to court to have the results nullified? Of course not.

Hence, the stench surrounding the lawsuit that seeks a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction.