Almost nine years after Wal-Mart went down in flames, the victim of 2,354 votes not to rezone land for them, Home Depot has filed a site plan application for a 69,500 s.f. store in Greenfield, Massachusetts. This time the big box would be located on land previously the home of a large grocery store, and next to an Ames department store, which is liquidating. Thus in two respects the Home Depot site is already a victory for anti-sprawl groups: 1) it’s 37% smaller the typical 109,000 s.f. Home Depot store and 2) it doesn’t require a rezoning. But the project is still objectionable in scale and design. Two local groups have formed around the project: Hometown Franklin County opposes the plan, and wants it downsized further and redesigned, and Citizens for Growth is promoting it. Hometown has also filed a petition to rezone the parcel from commercial to industrial to yield higher paying jobs from the site, and to limit the size of any retail building. The site is located near Route 91, more than a mile outside of the main commercial downtown district, which the town says it wants to rejuvenate. Although the town of Greenfield has a Major Development Review zoning ordinance which requires special traffic and economic impact studies, Home Depot is trying to escape the MDR review by claiming its razing of the old grocery store and construction of a new home improvement building is an “expansion” of an existing commercial use, rather than a new project. Under the Greenfield MDR rules, any use generating more than 500 vehicle trips must have an MDR review and get a special permit. If Home Depot can avoid an MDR, it needs no special permit and would not even have a public hearing — until their site plan review is appealed to the town’s Zoning Board. Home Depot claims its project “will not adversely impact Town services, traffic patterns, or the health safety and welfare of the town.” The company also claims that its big box store “will also reasonably protect the visual environment and aesthetic qualities of the neighborhood and Town.” No evidence to support any such claims are found in their filings. The company also asserts that “The Home Depot will contribute to the Town’s economy without taxing its resources..and will help revitalize the shopping center, which could otherwise, potentiallyl, remain vacant.” The company fails to substantiate its opinion that “The Home Depot will also add to the Town’s economic base by creating new job opportunities for the Town’s residents.” None of these assertions are supported by any demonstrated findings of fact by the company, but are merely self-serving repetitions of zoning requirements. The company believes that if its “expansion” is less than 20,000 s.f. than the old use, that it can escape an MDR review. So they filed for a store than they claim is 19,000 s.f. bigger than the use their new construction will raze.
The local newspaper has already editorialized twice in favor of the project, and the Greenfield Board of Selectmen, which appoints all the Planning Board, Zoning Board and Conservation Commission members, has spoken in support of the plan — all before Home Depot had presented any formal application to the town. Town officials have clearly “predisposed” themselves to the project, and by so doing attempted to influence and bias what is supposed to be a review of the facts in the case by impartial boards. Several members of sitting boards have also predisposed themselves in their public comments. The first flash point is expected to be over the issue of whether or not this project — which would be the largest single retail building in the town’s history — is subject to the more rigorous Major Development Review. Town officials seem to be doing everything they can to avoid the protections put in place specifically to evaluate large scale projects.