Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Unsettling Home Depot settlement

The Reader's Forum
Journal Inquirer
December 6, 2007

I was unable to attend the Nov. 19 Planning and Zoning Commission "meeting" on the settlement with Home Depot.

I've read and heard accounts of the meeting, and I'm astounded that the key issue seems to have been glossed over, explained away, and perhaps not understood by the public and the news-reporting community.

That key issue is not about to build - or not to build - Home Depot. It's about actions taken by the town attorneys and Home Depot attorneys that created this bizarre settlement scenario: that one of the largest development proposals in Vernon could be approved without the rigors of review under planning and zoning regulations and without public hearing process.

Under settlement terms, instead of the usual detailed review there was to be only a one-night "meeting." Rules of public hearing did not apply - important rules like the requirement that once a public hearing is opened, all discussion by the parties involved must be in the public domain. The "meeting" involved a two-hour presentation by Home Depot experts, followed by public comment (many of whom had left by that late hour). Period. That was it.

This was the first time the full Planning and Zoning Commission had ever seen the plans. Normally a project of this magnitude is reviewed by the commission over several weeks. Time is taken to study detailed technical reports, ask questions, obtain input from other commissions and agencies, and from the public. And the PZC can hire its own experts on issues needing further examination.

Further, there was no opportunity for second- or third-party expert opinion to be received at this "meeting". This is like holding a trial - but not allowing defense testimony. It flies in the face of basic laws of justice, and in the face of the basic reasons we have planning and zoning statutes: protection of the public interest, the rights of citizens to make a case and be heard under the established regulatory processes.

Town attorneys have painted the picture that the settlement was "mandated" by the judge, and that somehow the judge ordered this "end game." This is absolutely false; the record is clear that the judge never ordered or requested mediation to settle the writ of mandamus action. Further, the judge is completely divorced from the terms of the settlement.

Attorney Hal Cummings, representing the town, and Home Depot attorneys initiated settlement discussions on their own - which is perfectly legal. But - most egregiously - they chose to bring the settlement process through the writ of mandamus action. This is uncharted legal territory. Further, this allowed them to pursue settlement discussions without participation of citizen intervenors.

If PZC members agree to this settlement they will have opted out of their right and obligation to review this plan under the full scrutiny of their regulations, including compatibility with neighboring uses, impacts on public health and safety, and environmental impacts, such as impacts on the aquifer that is on the site.

Agreement to this settlement would set dangerous legal precedence that could obstruct the future integrity of planning and zoning processes and the rights of public participation.

The commission will make a decision on the settlement at its meeting today, Dec. 6. I urge them to "just say no."

Ann Letendre