Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Court rubber stamps Home Depot settlement, opponents vow to persist

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
February 15, 2008

VERNON - The town's settlement agreement with Home Depot got a stamp of approval from the courts Thursday, after opponents claims were summarily dismissed by Vernon Superior Court Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza.

Derek V. Oatis, the Manchester lawyer representing two groups of residents whose efforts to intervene have been stymied in this process, says a civil rights lawsuit is being considered.

"We're going to do something - there's no way this agreement is going to stand," Oatis said after Thursday's hearing.

Sferrazza's approval of the agreement puts developers Diamond 67 LLC one giant step closer to building a Home Depot at exit 67 off Interstate 84. Lawyers representing Home Depot brokered the agreement with town lawyers and a three-member subcommittee from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The full commission voted 4-3 in December to accept the controversial agreement in concept, and last week they approved the draft and Chairman Lester Finkle signed it.

Developers had two claims against the commission: an appeal of Planning and Zoning's rejection of the 2003 application, and also a complaint that the commission failed to act on that application within state statutory time limits.

Known as a mandamus action, interveners were not allowed to participate because the suit dealt solely with time issues and deadlines. Interveners are third parties to a lawsuit who are allowed to call in experts to testify on their behalf.

"The court's overview here is extremely limited - it's either thumbs up or thumbs down," Oatis argued to Sferrazza, adding, "There's no oversight to planning and zoning, and we have a brand new plan here."

Oatis also argued that Sferrazza never ordered the mediation, and therefore negotiations were baseless, and suggested the Town Council is the only entity authorized to settle a lawsuit against Vernon.

Robert Fuller, a lawyer for the developer, noted that the commission was "very liberal" in allowing public input during the process. As for authority, once a land use commission is established, it is independent and free from the encumbrances of other government branches in a municipality, Fuller said.

Town Attorney Harold Cummings added to Fuller's argument that there's a standing order for mediation in all lawsuits filed in the Tolland Judicial District, and there was a significant risk to the town.

"This is an extremely fair agreement. Changes were made in the plan to satisfy the Planning and Zoning Commission and their consultants, and it is a reduction," Cummings told Sferrazza. "This case, at least as it pertains to environmental issues, has been fully litigated before the courts."

Sferrazza agreed with both arguments made by Cummings and Fuller, dismissing Oatis' motions.

"I am satisfied that the parties attempted to settle a protracted litigation that did not involve fraud," Sferrazza said before passing judgement and adopting the settlement as a resolution to the lawsuit.

Several more permits are needed before construction can begin, but developers have said that they hope to break ground this summer. The project is expected to take nine months to a year to complete.

The settlement allows developers to build a 132,973-square-foot Home Depot and garden center on 14.7-acres near Walker's Reservoir in exchange for certain concessions, including a smaller building footprint, fewer parking spaces, more landscaping, and sewer line hook-ups, rather than digging a septic system.

David Batchelder, founder of Smart Growth for Vernon, one of the two groups that hired Oatis, characterized the mediation and settlement process as "skullduggery, devised to omit and prevent public input."

"They may think that they have won a battle, but the war against back-room settlements and in defense of the environment and existing neighborhoods will go on," Batchelder said.

©Journal Inquirer 2008