The town of Vernon, Connecticut has less than 30,000 people, and its population in 2006 is actually lower than it was in 1990. The town has also 9 Home Depot stores within 50 miles, so there is no market need for another one. According to the Hartford Advocate this week, residents in Vernon have been blocking approval of a Home Depot planned for the former site of the New England Sportsplex, just off Route 84 for more than five years. The group Smart Growth for Vernon charges that a Home Depot would harm the environment, and kick up the town’s traffic problems. In 2003, the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission rejected the first Home Depot plan. “In 2003, both Wal-Mart and Home Depot were going to build in that exit, in two different lots,” explained David Batchelder, a member of Smart Growth for Vernon. “Both had to go before the wetlands commission in the town of Vernon to get a permit. Wetlands shot them both down. Wal-Mart hasn’t been back.” Vernon’s Inland Wetlands Commission quashed Wal-Mart’s plans in 2004 after three months of meetings to reach a decision that pleased many residents, some of whom belonged to Rockville Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development. That group represented about 100 families upset that a supercenter was planned for their community. Wal-Mart had planned to build an 186,000-square-foot store with 859 parking spaces on 41.7 acres off Route 31, behind a Burger King restaurant. In March of 2005, despite its legal battles, Home Depot bought a 14.7-acre parcel for $4 million from Diamond 67 LLC, the developer. Diamond made $1.2 million on the deal, having purchased the land three months earlier for $2.8 million. Diamond 67 continued to fight in Superior Court against the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission over its rejection of the application in the summer of 2003. Home Depot said at the time of the purchase that it viewed the site as attractive in light of the development in the surrounding area. “Our plan there is to put up a store,” a Home Depot spokesman told the Journal Inquirer. “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.” The company said if it lost the legal battle, it would just sell the land. A Superior Court judge overturned the wetlands commission’s ruling from 2003, saying there was insufficient legal reasoning to deny the application. The judge sent the matter back to the wetlands commission. The commission unanimously released a second decision outlining its reasons for rejecting the wetlands permit, saying 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. The commission also found that the developers could mitigate the damage to surrounding wetlands by reducing the size of the proposed building, reducing the size of the parking lot, and eliminating the 28,700-square-foot garden center. Diamond 67 then sued the wetland commission, saying 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. In a June, 2007 letter, Diamond 67 asked the Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission to send an approval letter for Home Depot by July 9. Diamond 67 claimed that the March 3, 2003 Home Depot application has been automatically approved because the Planning and Zoning Commission failed to send a denial letter for that application. According to a letter written by the town’s attorney, the 2003 application is not automatically approved, in part because the Home Depot application requires at least five special permits. The Planning and Zoning Commission denied the 2003 application at its July 19, 2007 meeting. Home Depot has now filed a second plan, and at a meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission on November 19th, the developers presented a version of the proposal that was agreed to as part of a legal settlement, Smart Growth says. “[The agreement was] done behind closed doors without any public input, and only three commission members.” The chairman of that committee says his board will “take what we heard from the public and ask those questions of Home Depot.” “The commission did not have to hold a public presentation. We didn’t have to have public input. Because it was a lawsuit and this was a mediation process, it meant it wasn’t a legal hearing,” the chairman of the P&Z said.
By filing a lawsuit, Home Depot gets to privately negotiate with the town over what kind of store it will get, with the public left sitting on the sidelines. Both Home Depot and Wal-Mart have been put through a lengthy and expensive process in Vernon. Wal-Mart has already dropped out, but Home Depot continues to pursue its store. Now entering its fifth year of contention, Home Depot has already lost years of sales in this location, and are ignoring the rulings of local boards that don’t want them there. For more background, go to the Smart Growth For Vernon website at: http://www.smartgrowthforvernon.org/index.html. The Planning & Zoning Commission will discuss Home Depot again on December 6th. Readers are urged to call the Chairman of P&Z, Lester Finkle at (860) 870-3675, with this message: “Don’t cave in to legal pressure from Home Depot or Diamond 67. Vernon does not need a Home Depot, and the project unnecessarily damages the wetlands because of its massive scale. Make them shrink it dramatically, or find some other town to sprawl in.”