Neighbors testify

  • Lawyers Michael Aleo and Tom Lesser listen as lawyer Marshall Senterfitt makes a point Tuesday during the big box trial in Franklin County Superior Court. Neighbors testified on day three as the trial continued Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2019 11:22:08 PM

GREENFIELD — At times the neighbors called to the stand were shy. Other times they were colloquial in their commentary. Sometimes they offered brief moments of humor. But at all times, they were unequivocal in their sentiment about a potential 135,000-square-foot big box store across the way from them.

“Yes, I am concerned,” Ralph Gordon Jr., a truck driver for Coca-Cola, said about the possibility that a ‘Walmart prototype’ retail store could devalue his property. “Because it’d be a big box place. I don’t think anybody would want to buy a house next to one of them.”

On the third day of the big box trial at Franklin County Superior Court, the neighbors, who are fighting a special permit the Greenfield Planning Board approved in 2011, testified in front of Judge Richard Carey.

“I honestly would like nothing like this across from me,” Gordon, a resident of Wunsch Road, said.

While the attorneys for the neighbors built a case that the project would be a burden, both as an issue of quality of life and financial risk, the case at this point likely still rests on the nuances of the zoning process. Issues such as whether major development review guidelines are a mandate or a recommendation could be pivotal.

On Tuesday, Carey said he was looking for additional commentary on these issues, and on Wednesday these points were reiterated by the judge and attorneys.

When the trial likely ends today, the judge will await additional documents to be delivered by both sides. Carey then will give a ruling, which could come this summer.

A decision in favor of the neighbors could dead end this potential development on the French King Highway corridor that belongs to Ceruzzi Properties, formerly of Mackin Construction. A ruling in favor of either side could be appealed to the next court and delay development for more years to come.

Neighbors recalled the recent construction to nearby bridges to Montague, like the White Bridge and General Pierce Bridge, which caused traffic to detour near their property and over the Gill-Montague Bridge. The traffic was “as far as the eye can see,” Gordon said.

Cars began to cut through Wunsch Road more often during the peak of the construction.

“We look out our window and say, ‘Someone is here,’ but they’re just turning around,” Wunsch Road neighbor Shirley Lowe said about people pulling into the driveway of her home. “It happens all the time.”

Lowe said since the construction is over, it happens less frequently, but still from time to time. She and other neighbors who testified expressed a unified concern that a big box store in the area could cause similar traffic delays and hasty driving decisions.

The attorneys for the developer debated this point. They asked Lowe and other residents whether they had done any of their own traffic studies to reach these conclusions and whether they were aware that a traffic light would be added.

“I don’t think it’ll be easier,” Lowe said. “I think it’ll be harder.”

Michael Skawski said he and his wife, who runs a daycare business, tried to sell their home on Wunsch Road in 2012.

“In light of the proposed project,” Skawski said. “We thought it would be best to relocate.”

He said they were unable to sell their home with the help of a realtor. He said they tried to sell it for under the assessed value. The realtor told him it was difficult to sell because of the proposed project, Skawski testified.

Instead they moved to Hatfield but retained the home, which he said they rent out for $1,200 a month.

Joanna Mann, of nearby Gill Road, has lived in a 1,000-square-foot home with her mother for 61 years.

She said it can be difficult during rush hour, in current conditions, for her mother and her to drive onto 2A.

“One has to be patient,” Mann said. “Maybe if it’s really heavy traffic, there’s a kind soul who will let me go.”

In her cross examination, Alana Rosin, an attorney representing Greenfield Investors Property LLC, asked Mann: “Who is Al Norman?”

“Al Norman is a community activist,” Mann said. “His earlier work was with seniors.”

Norman, the sprawlbuster who has acted as spokesman for the neighbors throughout this decade and has made a life’s work out of fighting Walmart and other sprawl development nationwide, also used to lobby on Beacon Hill for elder care rights. He worked closely with LifePath.

Rosin’s questioning was aimed at a statement Norman said in the past that the neighbors would be OK with a 90,000-square-foot retail store instead of a 135,000 one. The neighbors mostly disagreed with this generalization.

Mann said she wasn’t familiar with that statement by Norman, who was sitting in the back of the courtroom and has been present for the whole case.

“I’d have to review that because it’s been a long time,” Mann said.

Architect Margo Jones

Local architect Margo Jones, who is also a Greenfield resident, testified on behalf of the neighbors.

She said she is opposed to the project in general, and she doesn’t shop at Walmart, during questioning by the developer’s lawyers.

Jones, who most recently helped design the city’s parking garage, offered her take on whether the proposed retail development met Greenfield zoning guidelines.

The 135,000-square-foot retail “Walmart prototype” is “entirely different, incompatible” with the character of the neighborhood, Jones said, which includes the “very humble” homes of the neighbors.

The neighborhood is currently zoned general commercial and buildings 40,000 square feet and under are allowed by right. Otherwise, developers need a special permit, like in this case.

“It’s giant and gargantuan compared to the scale of the neighborhood,” Jones said.

Jones critiqued the analysis of the developer’s project manager, Richard Dupuis, who testified for Greenfield Investors on Monday.

“I don’t believe this project meets those criteria,” Jones said about elements of the zoning guidelines. “It’s basically an unrelenting box.”

She said for this “very unappealing” project to conform with the neighborhood, it would need to be built with brick, have real windows and be sized to a human scale, instead of being “designed for trucks and cars.”

Attorney Marshall Senterfitt countered Jones’ portrayal in his questioning on behalf of the developer. He suggested her expertise was either not relevant to what she was commenting on or that her opinions were tainted by a prejudice against the project in the first place.

He brought up a rendering of how the project might look that Jones’ firm developed and delivered to the Planning Board in 2011.

“This image is incredibly misleading, isn’t it, Ms. Jones?” Senterfitt said.

“No,” Jones said. “It gives the scale of the box.”

Today, the final day

Both sides are expected to present a witness who is an expert appraiser. The attorneys for the neighbors will go first.

Following the conclusion of the witnesses, which is expected to end before lunch Thursday, the trial will have essentially wrapped up its courtroom process.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264




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