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Rival grocers tangled in suit in Upper St. Clair

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 12:19 a.m.

Owners of the former Consol Energy Inc. property in Upper St. Clair are suing a resident, claiming she abused the legal process to prevent construction of a Whole Foods Market there.

Rival grocer Giant Eagle, which has a supermarket nearby, confirmed on Tuesday that it is supporting the defendant with “legal and technical support.”

Gerard Cipriani and Hal Kestler, doing business as 1800 Washington Road Associates, filed a lawsuit this week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against Margaret Witner, 69, seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.

They claim Witner obstructed their proposed development at Washington and Fort Couch roads. Though Witner appealed numerous municipal decisions on the project, she always speaks through her attorneys, Cipriani said.

“Since she has never appeared for any hearings or board meetings, we want to make sure she testifies on-record about her motives and concerns,” he said. The lawsuit claims Witner's appeals delayed construction and cost the developers lease payments, legal fees and construction costs.

Whole Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

Giant Eagle said in a statement that it offers help to residents who “exercise their constitutional rights” to oppose such developments, and that the company is concerned that the mixed-use complex would worsen traffic in the Route 19 and Fort Couch Road area.

“Giant Eagle does not believe the proposed development is in the best interest of the community and that any zoning changes should be enacted in full compliance with the law,” the statement said.

Giant Eagle had “preliminary discussions to invest in or acquire the property in question,” the statement said.

Witner declined comment, referring questions to attorney Matthew Racunas. He couldn't be reached, but has said Witner objected to “spot zoning,” or rezoning the property in a way that's inconsistent with its surroundings and tailored to benefit a specific tenant.

The lawsuit alleges that Giant Eagle executives told the developers they did not want a Whole Foods Market less than a mile from the Giant Eagle Market District in Bethel Park, and “would do whatever it could to prevent Whole Foods from locating its store at the Washington Road property.”

Witner “has agreed to act as the surrogate of others,” but does not state that she is acting on Giant Eagle's behalf, the lawsuit says.

The developers' attorney said in public hearings that “a local grocery chain” — without naming one — has backed appeals by Witner and another resident, Moira Cain-Mannix, who works for a law firm that frequently represents Giant Eagle.

Cain-Mannix has said she is not a “straw party” for Giant Eagle.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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