Big box trial: A recap

  • Franklin County Superior Court Judge Richard Carey listens to witness Robert Chamberlin, an expert on traffic studies, during the big box trial on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2019 11:35:27 PM

GREENFIELD — March was the month defined by the library, but it was also marked by renewed conversations around zoning of the French King Highway corridor. And last week, the zoning questions came to court for a separate but related issue.

The big box trial, which has been in the making for nearly a decade, concluded in Franklin County Superior Court this week. A ruling likely won’t come until this summer, but to some extent the end of the trial closed this latest chapter in the city’s history over commercial development.

Here’s a look back at the trial.

What was it about? 

Both sides sought to prove whether the special permit the Greenfield Planning Board issued in 2011 to Greenfield Investors LLC, of Ceruzzi Properties was done properly.

The developers were approved at the time to build a 135,000-square-foot big box retail store at the site of the former Mackin Construction gravel pit.

Neighbors of the property along the French King Highway corridor, primarily residing on Wunsch Road, appealed the decision then and it has been in court ever since.

Franklin County Superior Court Judge Richard Carey will rule on the case, likely this summer. A decision may be appealed and could keep the issue in the courts.

The store in question was described in court this week as a “Walmart prototype.” In a 1993 project destined for the same land, developers had planned a 270,000-square-foot shopping center anchored by a Walmart, according to court testimony. 

And why do we care? 

Some residents have looked at this case as the main reason the city does not have a Walmart. Commercial retail is allowed anywhere on the French King corridor. This case, among several additional factors, has stalled potential action. 

Questions have circulated among those involved in city planning that even if the judge rules in favor of the developer, whether a big box would want to build there in today’s shifting retail economy. 

Nonetheless, with limited land in Greenfield to develop for commercial use, residents and city officials often fixate on the potential development along this strip of land. Some city officials hope it would generate more tax revenue for the city that could help pay for infrastructure and new building costs, along with bringing discount shopping to the area that has been absent since Ames closed. 

Additionally, at the center of the case for the neighbors is sprawlbuster Al Norman, who has made a career out of stopping stores like Walmart from opening in towns across the country during the last three decades. 

On the other side of the aisle is Roxann Wedegartner, who was chairwoman of the Planning Board at the time. She is now running for mayor. 

The arguments

Neighbors: The Planning Board did not adequately consider specific zoning issues such as traffic and aesthetics, which could lead to decreased home values.They argued studies the developer offered the board were not well done and used numbers that were often misleading or incorrect.

Developer: The Planning Board was sufficient when it issued the permit, adhering to the zoning issues. They argued traffic studies and appraised values of homes were done by experts who have a long track record of getting commercial projects approved before municipalities. 

Day 1

The first day was not spent delivering opening remarks, which were submitted ahead of time, but instead went straight into calling witnesses to the stand.

Tom Lesser and Michael Aleo, the lawyers for the neighbors, highlighted an email sent in 2010 about the size of the project and how it needed to change to comply with the city’s major development review guidelines. Project manager for the developer, Richard Dupuis and later on lead traffic engineer Patrick Dunford, were scrutinized over their involvement. 

Traffic engineers had said before the project, which was being worked on as early as 2005 by Dupuis, needed to be reduced at least by a third to somewhere between 75,000 to 90,000 square feet. The recommendation was not followed.

A core question that emerged during the first day was whether a major development review is a guideline or a mandate for a developer, which the judge said he still needed to figure out. 

Day 2

A bulk of the day revolved around asking witnesses about fine details, such as their expert opinions on: to what extent a traffic light could reduce traffic issues; how long a turn lane needed to be effective; how long is a healthy amount of space between vehicles; and what constitutes waiting too long to merge onto the road. 

Carey, the judge, called for a morning break when he said the proceedings were “brutal.” 

Craig Seymour, traffic expert for the neighbors, said the plans the team for the developer proposed to the Planning Board were woefully inadequate. He said in some cases the money committed by the developer wouldn’t cover the cost for a study, let alone the fix itself. 

Day 3

In the morning, the neighbors testified. They offered how the project in question has already hurt their property values. 

One resident, Michael Skawski, said he and his wife had difficulty selling their home with a real estate agent because of the proposed retail development. They eventually moved to Hatfield and now rent out their Wunsch Road home. Others said it was sure to make traffic significantly worse, which could harm their quality of life. 

Shirley Lowe, also of Wunsch Road, talked about traffic issues during recent construction work to bridges connecting to Montague. Detours sent drivers in the direction of her home and led to people repeatedly drive down her block to cut through, and then pull into her driveway.”We look out the window,” she said, “and say ‘Someone is here’ but they’re just turning around.” 

In the afternoon, local architect Margo Jones spoke on behalf of the neighbors. She said the prepared plans were going to leave neighbors with a “giant and gargantuan” retail store that is “basically an unrelenting box” that doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood. 

The lawyers for the developer argued she was biased against the project, noting her outward support against it. 

Day 4

Striking a similar note to prior days, expert analysis was scrutinized for its methodology and credibility. 

Two appraisers, one for each side, argued the project would either not hurt the value of the neighbors' homes or would drop the value of the small homes in the commercial district. 

After the trial concluded, Carey commended the two pairs of attorneys. 

“There was an enormous amount of work poured into this,” Carey said. “In my opinion, it was just excellent lawyering.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: 

413-772-0261, ext. 264

jsolomon@recorder.com




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