On July 26, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a proposed Wal-Mart superstore in tiny Brooklyn, Connecticut had attracted two lawsuits. Wal-Mart’s application for the 162,000 s.f. store was approved on March 19, 2009 by the Brooklyn Inland/Wetlands. The I/W Commission voted that the huge superstore would not create a “significant activity” that would have a major impact on wetlands. They also ruled that the project would not cause unreasonable pollution or impairment the wetlands on the site. The Commission attached 14 insignificant conditions to their approval, including requiring Wal-Mart to use a biodegradable de-icing product on the parking lot. Immediately after the vote, a citizen’s group vowed to challenge the I/W Commission decision. The Battle of Brooklyn was in the news again on June 24, 2009 when another town board, the Planning & Zoning Commission, voted 7-1 to approve the application, with members again attaching their own list of 18 minor conditions to the plan. The commission will require Wal-Mart to increase its buffer area, do a daily litter clean up, conduct a noise and lighting test, and post a bond to ensure proper erosion control and landscaping on the site if the project is not finished. Only one member of the P&Z voted against the plan, noting that its huge size was not “in harmony with the town, does not have a New England architectural style and would hurt neighboring property values,” according to the Norwich Bulletin. Lisa Arends, a spokesperson for the group Brooklyn for Sensible Growth, told the newspaper, “I’m disappointed, but not surprised. “It is what it is, and we go from here.” The second appeal in this case was formally filed in Putnam Superior Court on July 6th. The “Brooklyn Dozen,” including residents Jeff Haines, Demetrios and Maria Pasiakos, Kerry and Elaine Lambert and Dan Litke filed as abutters to the project. The lawsuit charges that the P&Z vote for Wal-Mart was “illegal, arbitrary, capricious and in abuse of its discretion.” The residents say that town officials failed to follow town regulations and state statutes in making their decision. The plaintiffs and their experts testified during the hearings that the huge store — the building itself is almost three times the size of a football field — did not conform with other retail businesses in the area, or with the surrounding built environment. 4 acres including in the plan are zoned residential-agricultural, and not planned commercial. The lawsuit charges that town “staff participation during deliberations was in the nature of advocacy … and rendered the proceedings fundamentally unfair.” The first appeal of the Inland Wetlands case will come up for a pretrial conference on September 23rd, and the actual court hearing date will be March 22, 2010. This means that citizens have effectively delayed any action on Wal-Mart’s approval from Inland/Wetlands by one year from the vote of approval by that body. The P&Z appeal will delay the project further. Wal-Mart has indicated that nothing will happen with this project until the appeals are processed. With this litigation as a backdrop, it is not surprising that town officials do not want to cooperate with the efforts by local residents to prevent this kind of a big box fiasco from happening again in their community. This week, the same Brooklyn Planning & Zoning Commission that approved the Wal-Mart voted to ‘study’ a zoning regulation change that would have created a size cap of 50,000 s.f. on all retail businesses. Such limitations on the bulk of stores have become commonplace in communities across the country as a bright line to limit big box sprawl. As a token to citizens who pushed for the new regulation, the P&Z did agree to form a subcommittee to “study,” the issue to decide if a cap is desirable, and at what size it would be set. The “study” gives local officials more time to organize sentiment against the idea. The subcommittee will have members of the town’s Economic Development, Conservation, and Planning and Zoning commissions, as well as some residents. The size cap is Brooklyn’s best avenue for protecting its small town character, and prevent the secondary sprawl growth that is attracted to big box projects like the Wal-Mart superstore. But on the advice of the town’s lawyer, the Commission’s review of the idea tabled without a vote, and the idea of a study was presented instead.
The size cap regulation as written would only have relevance to the planned commercial zone, because existing zoning regulations in every other zone already would rule out big box stores. Jeff Arends, who opposed the Wal-Mart and who helped propose the size cap, said the regulation change was written to apply to all zones in Brooklyn in cased new ones were added later. But under questioning by the P&Z members, Arends said he would be willing to see just the commercial zone targeted for the new cap. This size cap was submitted to the town last December — before any votes were taken on the Wal-Mart project — which will not be affected by the cap if it subsequently passes. In the two hour hearing on the size cap, most of the testimony submitted to officials was in favor of the regulation, according to the Bulletin. “A 50,000 s.f. cap would not be the death of Brooklyn,” one resident told the Commission. “Brooklyn deserves protection from the devastation and irreparable damage of urban sprawl which is knocking on our door,” Lisa Arends told the Commission. Attorney Marjorie Shansky, who is representing the citizens in their appeals against the Wal-Mart decision, also spoke in favor of the plan. During the Wal-Mart appeal, residents voiced concerns that land further along Route 6 would attract more big box sprawl and national chain restaurants if the Wal-Mart is built. The Brooklyn retail trade area already has a Wal-Mart 10 miles away in Putnam, Connecticut, plus a supercenter 14 miles away in North Windham, and another supercenter 14 miles away in Lisbon. “This store will not affect our stores in neighboring communities,” Wal-Mart told its critics. “Having multiple stores in a region is a way to ensure we provide savings and convenience to as many as possible.” Wal-Mart tried to use the economy’s weakened condition as another reason to want a superstore. “With the economy in fragile condition, a Brooklyn store brings hundreds of new jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.” The reality is that there will be little or no ‘new’ jobs at Wal-Mart, because the superstore in Brooklyn will cannibalize other Wal-Mart’s nearby, and cause local stores — including grocery stores — to fail. Readers are urged to email Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Thomas Doherty at http://www.brooklynct.org/contactus.htm with the following message: “Dear Chairman Doherty, I hope the Wal-Mart battle in Brooklyn has convinced you that big box superstores are a point of deep division in your small town, and that putting a limit on the bulk of buildings is as appropriate as placing a limit on the height of buildings. This has become a mainstream zoning idea in communities across the country, going back more than a decade. This is a legitimate zoning tool to help Brooklyn guide future growth, instead of following the lead of national chain store developers. The cap will not affect Wal-Mart, so your ‘study’ of the issue should not be clouded by that. As one Mayor has said, ‘It’s not how big you grow — but how you grow big, that matters.’ Brooklyn will not get many chances to determine how it will grow. The size cap allows developers to fit into your vision of the future, rather than the reverse. If you are going to tell people on your website, ‘Take a minute and enjoy the view’ — then you’d better protect the view in Brooklyn before it gets crowded out by big box sprawl.”