Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Proposed Home Depot settlement is an outrage

Editorials & Comment
Journal Inquirer
November 17, 2007

By Glenn Montigny and Dave Batchelder

This is a wake-up call to Vernon residents. Behind closed doors and without review or input by the public, a new Home Depot development plan has been created and, apparently, tacitly approved by Town officials.

Rather than bringing the application before the Planning and Zoning Commission in open public hearings, Home Depot and the town attorneys have decided to pursue the extraordinary tactic of using the pending actions in civil court to devise a "settlement." The settlement could allow Home Depot to be constructed without the usual review by the PZC and, most importantly, without a public hearing.

A special meeting has been called for 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19. At this meeting Home Depot will present the details of the new plan to the PZC. The public may comment only on the terms of the settlement. The town has made it clear that this meeting is not a public hearing. The PZC will then decide whether or not it will accept the terms of the settlement.

What does this action mean? Well, one of the largest and most intrusive developments ever proposed in town could be constructed in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in Vernon or even in the state—without any expert review and without any oversight or challenge by Vernon citizens.

This circumvention of the public hearing process by Home Depot and the town attorneys renders the zoning regulations irrelevant. Without a public hearing, there will be little or no consideration of critical zoning criteria such as whether or not the development is compatible with the neighborhood.

And what about other zoning considerations such as traffic impacts, building design, and storm water management? How will citizens, other experts, or other town commissioners be able to comment on these critical points without a public hearing?

Two groups in town, Rockville Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development and Smart Growth for Vernon, are outraged at this "backroom" deal crafted by Home Depot. They urge all concerned citizens to come to the Nov. 19 meeting to voice their objections to this denial of due process.

The history of this Vernon Home Depot application is rampant with repeated local commission denials, yet Home Depot appears to be on the cusp of constructing its project. How did we get to this point?

In 2003 three Vernon residents intervened in the Home Depot Inland Wetlands Commission application and presented testimony from experts regarding environmental impacts of the development. The IWC denied the permit unanimously and Home Depot appealed. The court remanded the matter back to the IWC for further clarification of the reasons for denial and, after reviewing all of the evidence a second time, the IWC again denied the application — unanimously.

Home Depot once again appealed but this time the court ruled against the town and directed the IWC to approve the application. With its court-ordered wetlands permit in hand, Home Depot then claimed that its original 2003 application to the PZC had to be automatically approved because town officials had failed to follow the statutory notice requirements

The PZC refused to grant the permit and denied the 2003 application. Home Depot appealed that denial and also filed a civil action, a writ of mandamus, demanding that the town approve the 2003 PZC application. While these court actions were pending, Home Depot filed yet another, although largely identical, application with the PZC in 2007.

Citizens once again filed environmental intervention petitions in both the PZC proceeding and in the court actions. The result? At the local level, Home Depot withdrew its 2007 application. At the court level, the judge denied the citizens the right to intervene in the civil action.

Consequently, with the intervenors out of the picture in the court proceeding, Home Depot and the town were free to negotiate to settle that action without any public scrutiny — which is exactly what they did. With just three of the seven members of the PZC present, the town attorneys and Home Depot came up with a new plan. It is this "revised" plan that will be reviewed by the PZC on Nov. 19, without a public hearing.

Citizens should be incensed at this effort to construct one of the biggest developments in this town's history without formal and comprehensive review. Who is calling the shots? Who authorized the town attorneys to enter into settlement discussions? Or were the town attorneys acting unilaterally without any direct authorization from town officials? And, above all, why would the town attorneys opt to settle away the town's rights rather than face Home Depot in court and defend the democratic process?

These questions need to be asked and answered. Town officials must be held accountable and provide an explanation for this egregious circumvention of due process. Vernon taxpayers we deserve nothing less.

Please come to the PZC meeting at the Vernon Senior Citizens' Center, 26 Park Place (next to Town Hall), at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19.

Glenn Montigny represents Rockville Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development. Dave Batchelder is with Smart Growth for Vernon.