Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Home Depot buys controversial site

By: Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
March 14, 2006

VERNON- Despite an ongoing legal battle over its plans, Home Depot has bought a 14.7-acre parcel in the northeast section of town, where it has proposed to build a store for several years.

According to a deed filed in the Town Clerk's office on Monday, the Atlanta-based home improvement retailer bought the former New England SportsPlex property near exit 67 from Interstate 84 for $4 million.

Home Depot bought the site, 117 Reservoir Road, from Diamond 67 LLC, a developer that has proposed to build a 117,000-square-foot Home Depot on the site for more than three years.

Diamond 67 bought the site from Wayne Williams of Stafford on Jan. 19 for $2.8 million, according to land records.

The retail giant's decision to invest a significant amount of money in the site comes at a time when Diamond 67 continues a protracted Superior Court battle against the town's Inland Wetlands Commission over its rejection of the application in the summer of 2003.

Despite the ongoing legal battle, Home Depot spokesman Yancy Casey said the retailer sees the site as attractive in light of the development in the surrounding area.

"Our plan there is to put up a store," Casey said. "When we see a piece of property that makes sense to us, whether we can develop today or in the future, it makes sense for us to purchase the property. We saw this as a great opportunity, and we didn't want to pass it up."

If it loses the legal battle and isn't allowed to build a store on the site, Casey said, the company would probably sell the parcel.

Environmental issues notwithstanding, Economic Development Director Neil S. Pade said, the Reservoir Road site's high visibility off of Interstate 84 makes it attractive to developers.

"They had a very strong commitment to that parcel already," Pade said. "If there is going to be development, there is going to need to be a balance between the development and the environmental resources in the area."

After eight nights of public hearings, which stretched over several weeks during the spring and summer of 2003, the wetlands commission rejected Diamond 67's application for a wetlands permit to build the store.

The hearings surrounding the project drew dozens of residents, most of whom opposed the project based on environmental concerns. The commission's unanimous vote to reject the application on Aug. 20, 2003 was met with cheers, hugs, and a standing ovation.

The site came back into the spotlight last March when a Superior Court judge overturned the wetlands commission's ruling, saying there was insufficient legal reasoning to deny the application.

The judge, Jane S. Scholl, sent the matter back to the wetlands commission for further consideration.

In December, after several months of deliberations and reviews of lengthy meeting transcripts, the commission unanimously approved a 14-page document outlining its reasons for rejecting the wetlands permit.

The document concluded that the application should be denied because the development would inhibit trout spawning in nearby watercourses, impair the physical characteristics of nearby water bodies, and affect the downstream flow of the Tankerhoosen River. It quoted heavily from the more than 20 volumes of documents and testimony from the eight public hearings in 2003.

The commission also found that the developers could mitigate the damage to surrounding wetlands by connecting the property to town sewers, reducing the size of the proposed building, reducing the size of the parking lot, redesigning the storm-water drainage system, and eliminating the planned 28,700-square-foot garden center.

Days after the commission's decision, Diamond 67 sued the wetland commission, saying the board's affirmation of its previous denial was improper.

In its lawsuit, Diamond 67 said the commission ignored expert testimony relating to the effects of an on-site septic system and accused it of holding closed-door sessions on the application and receiving additional information from its opponents.

Amy Blaymore Paterson, a lawyer who represented three opponents of the store, said any proposal put forth by Home Depot would probably be separate from the one previously rejected by the wetlands commission.

"We would have to see what they are proposing," Paterson said.

Paterson said her clients, who were recently granted intervenor status in Diamond 67's appeal, will continue to defend the commission's action.

©Journal Inquirer 2006