Home Depot has decided to scrap its plans for a huge, 153,000 s.f., 24-hour distribution center in the town of Sutton, Massachusetts. The Sutton plan had drawn opposition from local residents, who in November of 2001 filed an appeal in Land Court to overturn the town’s approval of the center. The lawsuit was filed by four abuttors to the property, who charged that the Home Depot plan was not compatible with the town’s master plan, that the town improperly granted waivers, and that the abuttors would be negatively impacted by the project. The proposal has been mired in court for nearly two years, but according to the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, Home Depot has decided to abandon its Sutton plan, and move instead to Westfield, MA and a larger vacant warehouse. The warehouse in Westfield has been used previously by two regional retailers that have since died, Ames and Caldors. Although Home Depot did not formally tell Sutton officials it was withdrawing until after word leaked out in the newspaper, the town’s Planning coordinator told the newspaper that the prospects of a distribution center in Sutton were not good. In a letter written to the town, Home Depot’s Real Estate manager said, “The Home Depot has decided not to wait any longer for the Land Court to render a decision relative to the action filed appealing the Planning Board’s approval of our application.” The appeal took roughly a year to conclude in Land Court, but a second year passed while the court considered the case. When the appeal was announced two years ago, a lawyer for Home Depot boasted, “We don’t think an appeal would cause a big delay.” Two years later, Home Depot is gone from Sutton.
Whenever people ask me if its worth it for citizens to challenge developers in court, I always tell them that legal appeals tend to level the playing field somewhat. After all, if developers don’t get what they want by regulation, they will pursue litigation — so citizen’s groups are only imitating developers. Second, by appealing, citizens live to fight another day, and in the interim, a delay can cause a company to change their plans, as in the Sutton case. But community groups should never count on this happening. In this case, Home Depot found a larger facility, and so dropped Sutton like a two-timed lover. But the lesson here is obvious: citizens must be prepared to use the same tactics that developers favor. Recent Newsflash articles have all been about communities going to court to slow down the big boxes. What use to be a perfunctory three month development project, can turn into three years. In the case of Sutton, it turned a Home Depot distribution center into an orange pumpkin.