Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Home Depot back in spotlight, this time with endorsements

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
November 20, 2007

VERNON - For the first time in four years, public sentiment was evenly divided over the proposed Home Depot development at exit 67 off Interstate 84 at a special meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission Monday night.

"I was surprised - it appears to be fairly even," Chairman Lester Finkle said, gauging the crowd's opinion after the late night session broke up about midnight. "It was good to see that however people felt, they came out to let us know what they think. It will certainly make our job easier."

Developers have been trying for years to build a Home Depot at the site of the former New England Sportsplex, and had been turned down by the Inland Wetland Commission. On Monday night, they proposed a settlement to their lawsuits against the town, angering some neighbors and residents who say they are being shut out of the process.

While the meeting wasn't considered a public hearing, the commission was generous in allotting speaking privileges to both sides, setting no time limits and allowing comments from those who hadn't signed up to address the panel.

The proposal - which includes a smaller building footprint, less parking spaces, more landscaping, and installing sewer lines at the developer's expense - was brokered in mediation in an effort to resolve the long standing dispute.

The controversial application to build on the environmentally sensitive 14.7 acres near the Walker Reservoir was twice rejected by the Inland Wetlands Commission, leading to the two lawsuits.

Home Depot sued and a judge overturned the commission's decision, ordering it to issue permits to the developer, Diamond 67 LLC. The lawsuit over the 2003 application now calls for immediate approval from Planning and Zoning, claiming it failed to meet the statutory deadline to render a decision.

A subcommittee of three PZC members - Finkle, Ralph Zahner, and Richard Guttman - met with developers and a court appointed mediator to see if they could find some common ground.

The proposal, which was presented, to the public and full commission Monday, is the result of those meetings.

With public comment now closed, commission members will discuss the proposal at its Dec. 6 regular meeting and then decide whether to accept the terms.

A yes vote would approve the developer's application, with the concessions. A no vote would send the parties back to court, where a judge will decide the case based on the original application and minus the alterations.

The changes include modifications to the building's appearance and a reduction in its size, from the initial proposal of 145,751 square feet to 132,973. The number of parking spaces also would be cut, from 591 to 460, and a walking path to the reservoir trails would be added.

Changes also include increasing the number of trees from 92 to 182, and adding three large landscaped islands in the parking lot, creating 45 percent more green space.

Developers also say they'll extend the sewer line to the area and forgo original plans for septic waste.

PZC members Mary Kelly and Watson Bellows voiced concern over storage of pesticides, fertilizers, and engine fluids.

Home Depot representatives said that under the agreement, all plant chemicals would be housed inside the store and not in the outdoor covered garden center. Also, a disposal system that separates oils and such into the sanitary sewers would be installed.

Alarms also were raised over increased traffic. Developers say that the Manchester Home Deport sees 20,000 customers every week and expects the Vernon store to receive about 70 percent of that.

Under the plan, the roads will be widened along Route 31 and the I-84 off ramp.

According to Marina Rodriquez, town Economic Development coordinator, Home Depot would generate $269,000 in taxes each year if built, and create 125 to 160 jobs, 60 percent of which would be full-time, paying $12 to $13 an hour with benefits.

With four failed budget referendums in each of the last four years, proponents touted the tax benefits in allowing Home Depot to build. But opponents want Vernon's rural neighborhoods preserved, and say the costs outweigh any benefit.

Conservation Commission members were unanimously opposed.

"This is way too invasive of an application for a site of this nature," Chairwoman Sheryl McMullen told Planning and Zoning officials.

But Town Attorney Hal Cummings said that the proposal addresses all the issues raised in the series of public hearings held before the Inland Wetlands Com-mission years ago.

"Hopefully this will resolve this whole episode," Farm Brook Lane resident Peter Kosak told the PZC. "The lawyers representing you are making money and the lawyers representing Home Depot are making money - the only people getting hosed are the taxpayers."

©Journal Inquirer 2007