Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Home Depot dispute coming to a resolution

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
December 7, 2007

VERNON - A decision on a proposed settlement for the landmark Home Depot case is near, as the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday wrapped up questioning and began deliberations on a dispute over building a big-box store on an environmentally sensitive parcel at exit 67 off Interstate 84.

For more than five years developers have been trying to build a Home Depot at the site of the former New England Sportsplex. Last month they proposed a settlement agreement hashed out in court-sponsored mediation with a subcommittee of three commission members.

The agreement is a compromise that would allow a smaller building footprint, fewer parking spaces, more landscaping, and hook-up to sewer lines rather than digging a septic system near the Walker Reservoir and hiking trails.

The concessions were sought by the commission subcommittee as a possible way to resolve the long-standing dispute.

Residents who have fought construction on the 14.7-acre parcel were angered, however, saying the proposed settlement was brokered in a back room deal, and didn't allow for public input.

A public hearing or interveners - experts called on to testify on behalf of town residents - are not required under the law in this action.

However, at its last meeting the commission allowed residents to speak on the proposed settlement, setting no time limits and going deep into the night. The debate seemed to be evenly divided with just as many people speaking in favor of the development as those against.

Developers Diamond 67 LLC and Home Depot presented the commission with a room full of lawyers, experts, and executives on Thursday, to try to answer complaints made by residents at the previous meeting as well as commission members' questions.

Wilton-based lawyer Robert A. Fuller equated resident complaints to a "Chicken Little syndrome, as there are no environmental concerns with this plan."

Under the agreement developers would modify the building's appearance and reduce its size, from the initial proposal of 145,751 square-feet to 132,973. The number of parking spaces would also 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, adding three large landscaped islands in the parking lot, and creating 45 percent more green space. Developers also say they'll extend the sewer line to the area, and forgo original plans for a septic system.

Additionally, developers also agreed to eliminate an outdoor seasonal display area, and install a crosswalk to a planned conservation area they will help the town build.

The commission must decide whether it wants to accept the agreement, add stipulations, or simply reject it and let the lawsuit go to trial.

Terms expire Dec. 31 for two members who have been extremely vocal on the subject, Mary Kelly and Watson C. Bellows Jr., so it's likely the commission will finish deliberations and make a decision at its next regular meeting, scheduled for Dec. 20.

So far, no consensus has emerged, although commission members did raise a number of concerns over increased traffic and storage of potentially hazardous materials.

Kelly repeatedly asked how much rock salt would be stored on premises and never got a concrete answer. Home Depot officials would only say the number of bags stocked on the shelves would be consumer driven and would not amount to "truckloads."

For Bellows, Sarah Iacobello, and Pat Settembrino, traffic was a major concern. All three commission members had trouble believing the developers' expert who claimed that because roads would be widened, traffic volume would not increase significantly, even at the nearby fast food restaurants and at the intersection of Routes 30 and 31 where lines of cars already can bunch up during certain times of the day.

But basically "everything comes down to Reservoir Road," where the public would gain access to Home Depot, Bellows said.

"We're talking about a country road that was made for wagons and horses," Bellows told developers. "It twists and turns and I'd feel better if it was straightened out so the line of sight for people coming through the entrances and exits were better."

And it would be nice if developers could keep the twists and turns further down the road to prevent trucks from traveling on the bucolic street, Bellows added.

"If you're willing to help us preserve this area, that would go a long way," Bellows told developers.

©Journal Inquirer 2007