Big box appeal opens in court today

  • Former Mackin property, now owned by Ceruzzi Properties, off the French King Highway in Greenfield. February 6, 2019 Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2019 6:42:24 AM

GREENFIELD — The long fight over a big box on French King Highway moves into the courtroom today. 

If Superior Court Judge Richard Carey accomplishes his goal, the 8-year-old appeal of a city-approved 135,000-square-foot store on French King may be resolved by the end of the week.

Of course, the ruling may just end this specific chapter in the decades-long saga of Greenfield and big boxes, leading to further legal appeals. 

The trial comes directly on the heels of last week’s Greenfield City Council vote to relax retail development restrictions along the French King. That zoning change might weaken this appeal by the project’s neighbors and big-box development foes and make it easier for other retailers to sprout up in the big box’s shadow along French King.

While the overlay district on French King that was eliminated last week never directly prevented a big box store from building along the limited amount of developable land just south of Route 2, it limited what other businesses could be built near the big box. 

City planners have noted in recent weeks that the area poses several obstacles to retail development, like the cost of building out sewer north of Stop & Shop, which would probably only be practical for a store with the financial strength of a big box. Greenfield Planning and Development Director Eric Eric Twarog said last week other businesses have likely been waiting to see what will happen with this appeal before embarking on their own plans. 

A big box store could act as a northern anchor to the corridor, with Stop & Shop at the southern end. With the removal of the overlay, previously restricted businesses like fast food restaurants and gas stations may now be built there, too.

The judge will rule on an appeal by neighbors along the French King who found issue with the decision the Greenfield Planning Board made in 2011 to grant a permit for a 135,000-square-foot retail store in the former Mackin gravel pit. Fighting the appeal, alongside the city’s legal team, is Greenfield Property Development LLC, which represents Ceruzzi Properties of Connecticut. Ceruzzi has never said what major retailer it hopes to attract to the property, but critics have assumed it would be a discount department store like a Walmart, which was rejected in the mid 1990s for land across the street.

The neighbors appealing the Planning Board decision are represented by local attorney Tom Lesser. Self-styled “sprawlbuster” Al Norman of Greenfield, who has made part of his life work fighting commercial “sprawl” nationwide, has acted as the unofficial spokesman for the neighbors and spearheaded the opposition.

The trial may dive into the weeds of the decision of the Planning Board, which was led by then-Chairwoman Roxann Wedegartner, who is now a mayoral candidate.

Norman expressed concern last month about whether the removal of the overlay district, which happened last week, could affect his case because it scraps the language that said the corridor was intended to be an attractive entryway to the city. This concern has been criticized by some city officials, including At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass, one of the brokers of the council deal to exchange the French King rezoning for a new public library.

The tussle over development of the French King stretches back to the early ‘90s, when the overlay district was created after a proposed Walmart shopping center there was defeated by referendum. In three decades nearly no development has come, and in the meantime, the retail business model has shifted with the emergence of online shopping.

At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel is pushing for renewed looks at rezoning the corridor for industrial use. The Planning Board is reviewing citywide zoning. This could allow for including mixed-use development along the corridor.

First, the city will have to see what happens this week with the planned big box store approval.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

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