On August 7, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that developer Louis J. Ceruzzi of Fairfield, Connecticut, had suddenly withdrawn his Notice of Intent (NOI) with the Conservation Commission in Greenfield, Massachusetts to build a 160,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore on a site just across the street from where the giant retailer was defeated by voters in 1993. That confrontation led to the founding of Sprawl-Busters. Fifteen years later, Wal-Mart is back — although the company has carefully avoided making any public commitment to the project. The NOI is a step in the process of getting approval for a project under the state’s Wetlands Protection Act. The developer must get local officials to approve their building plans, and show minimal impact on the site’s more than 6 wetland areas. The problem for this project is that one of the wetlands lies where the developer wanted to put the parking lot for the huge project — which is twice the size of any retail store in the town’s history. The town of Greenfield has a local wetlands by law that makes replication possible only as a last resort, putting the project in a legal swamp. To build the Wal-Mart, wetland 4 must be paved over, and replicated elsewhere on the site. But since replication is not allowed, the developer must try to get the town to ignore its own bylaw. That may be easy to do, since the Conservation Commission is appointed by the Mayor, and the Mayor of Greenfield, the project’s biggest supporter, fired the chair of the Commission to clear the way for her own appointees. Ceruzzi was forced to withdraw his proposal and start all over because the new members appointed by the Mayor could vote on the project under state law, because they arrived on the board in the middle of the case. When the Mayor canned the chair of the Commission, another member quit, leaving only 3 people on the Commission. The developer needed all three remaining votes for a NOI approval — and probably would not have gotten the votes needed. To better the odds, and let the Mayor’s appointments start at the beginning, the developer simply pulled his plans “without prejudice,” and refiled several months later, when the Mayor’s hand-picked members were ready to go. According to The Recorder newspaper, Mayor Christine Forgey said she didn’t know why the developer chose to withdraw. ”Actions and proceedings of this nature by developers aren’t uncommon when you’re dealing with a development of this complexity, even if there aren’t any issues with the project,” said the town’s lawyer. ”We’re not too concerned about all of this,” said the Mayor. ”There are other developers interested in the property and we aren’t sure what this developer is going to do yet. They do have the right to resubmit because they withdrew without prejudice.” More than a year later, the Connecticut developer is back, but still not through with the Conservation Commission. In November of 2008, Ceruzzi was given his Order of Conditions to proceed with his project. Rather the destroying wetland 4 on the property, Ceruzzi chose to build an unconventional, jagged store around the wetland. But in so doing, he has refused to shrink the store below its original size. Citizens opposed to the project say the town needs to find ways to minimize damage to the wetlands under state and local law, and a smaller scale project would mitigate the adverse impacts to buffer zones and other areas being intruded upon. At the same time as Ceruzzi was advancing his proposal, the landowner, the Mackin Construction Company, has been dealing with pollution on the site from years of operating a fuel oil business. Mackin now claims that the controversial wetland 4 is so polluted that it has become a public safety hazard and must be dug up and destroyed. The Greenfield Conservation Commission has voted to allow wetland 4 to be destroyed by the landowner, but plans to replicate the lost wetland on the northern part of the site has enraged the Narragansett Indians, who say that Native American burials can be found on that portion of the site. Although the Conservation Commission has now approved separate plans for the landowner and the developer — both are being appealed to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and two separate appeals to Superior Court regarding violations of the local wetland bylaw may also be filed. The developer must now present his plans to the Greenfield Zoning Board of Appeals, which will take up the issues of building size, traffic impacts, and economic impacts. The superstore is nowhere near the final approval stage, and court action on the Conservation Commission decision could take as long as a year to resolve. Despite the aggressive support of the local newspaper, the Town Council, and the Mayor, Greenfield’s proposed Wal-Mart supercenter has spent two years in the wetlands phase alone. And Wal-Mart still hasn’t revealed itself — not wanted to risk any chance of a second humiliating defeat in Greenfield.
The Mayor of Greenfield has staked her political credibility on producing a big box store for Greenfield, even though the community already has a BJ’s Wholesale Club, several Dollar Stores, and a Home Depot. But discount shopping has been missing since competition from area Wal-Marts forced the Ames discount chain to close regionally in 1998. When Ames closed, Wal-Mart declined to locate in the Ames location, and Home Depot took the property instead. ”There’s been a lot of controversy with this development, but through it all, we have maintained that we would follow the letter of the law, both state and local, in moving this project forward,” the Mayor noted. Opponents asked the Mayor to step down from the Conservation Commission, where she sits as a non-voting, ex officio memo. In the past year, the Mayor has not attended any of the board’s meetings. But the Mayor has lobbied her own appointees on the Commission, and the Conservation Commission has been communicating with the developer behind the scene, signaling in advance how the Commission will vote. At one point, when Ceruzzi wanted the Commission to rescind one of its votes — emails obtained under the Public Records Act show that town officials told the developer that the vote was going to be rescinded at a future meeting. A local group is fighting the project. The Voice of High Street says the project is too big, and in the wrong location. The 19 acre parcel is on the edge of town on a sensitive piece of wetland, and would generate 12,500 car trips on a Saturday, one third of which will have to come down the two-lane major residential corridor of High Street. This developer has spent several hundred thousand dollars on plans and studies just to get through the Conservation stage. The land itself has been strip mined almost down to the water table, and has still not been cleaned up from its petroleum products pollution. Readers are urged to send an email Letter to the Editor to The Recorder newspaper at [email protected] urging the Greenfield Zoning Board to force the developer to shrink the size of his store below 99,000 s.f. and to avoid all impacts to wetlands on the Mackin parcel. Letters should cite the high volume of traffic the project will bring up High Street, and the negative impact a third shopping district will have on Greenfield’s existing downtown.