Hannaford store in limbo after court ruling

Plans to build a Hannaford’s grocery store in Hinesburg remain unclear despite a recent ruling in the case by the Vermont Supreme Court.

Opponents hailed the decision that, in part, rejected a town zoning permit for the project. But the high court’s action also affirmed part of the case, and directed the lower state Environmental Court to revisit part of the Act 250 details of the project.

The company has yet to say what its next move might be.

For now, the project is at a standstill, seven years after the Maine-based grocery chain proposed a 36,000-square-foot grocery store and pharmacy on about 4.5 acres in downtown Hinesburg. Plans included 128 parking spaces.

Hannaford has 181 stores in the Northeast, including 17 in Vermont, the nearest being nearly 9 miles away at Taft Corners in Williston.

The Hinesburg site is the last undeveloped lot in the Commerce Park subdivision, which received its original state permits in 1987. The spot lies along Route 116 north of Hinesburg village, near Patrick Brook. The Hannaford lot is adjacent to other commercial development and a canal that runs parallel to Mechanicsville Road.

Although zoned for commercial use, the location poses multiple challenges with the nearby brook and congestion on adjacent busy roads at busy times of the day.

Since 2010, the project has wound through local and state permitting processes, sparking opposition from townspeople who organized under the banner Responsible Growth Hinesburg.

It was the group’s challenges to local zoning and state Act 250 permits that landed the project before the state Environmental Court and finally the Vermont Supreme Court.

Opponents are savoring what they consider a win in their appeal.

“They will have fought this project for seven years. They will fight it for another seven years if necessary,” said Jim Dumont, lawyer for the citizen group.

In its 39-page decision Nov. 9, the high court sorted through the main issues in the case and made several key decisions.

  • It overturned the town’s site-plan approval for the project, noting a requirement of a 75-foot setback along the canal adjacent to the site. The design puts the project too close.
  •  Project opponents objected to the orientation of the store’s proposed parking lot and questioned whether it would affect how people enjoy the adjacent walkway along the canal. The court rejected both those claims.
  • The court took issue with how the regulatory review handled the issues of stormwater and traffic.

The court noted that an expert witness for the neighbors group said a planned swale was “unlikely to function as planned,” and the company failed to refute that.

“We agree,” the court wrote, and said that issue needed to return to the trial court for more review.

On the issue of traffic, the Supreme Court said the Vermont Agency of Transportation needs to be more closely involved in details of how to address potential traffic impacts of the project. Earlier decisions called for a new traffic light on Route 116; town officials questioned whether that would be enough.

Next steps
In a memo to town officials, Hinesburg Planning and Zoning Director Alex Weinhagen was pleased to see the court focus on a closer look at transportation impacts. “There’s no guarantee what the outcome will be in further court proceedings, but at least the Vermont Supreme Court decision compels the lower court to revisit and re-evaluate these two traffic-related issues,” he wrote.

The next steps are likely up to Hannaford and whether it wants to stick with its project plans or change them.

Corporate spokesman Eric Blom said he couldn’t discuss the project at this time. He released a prepared statement in responding to the Supreme Court decision: “The court has remanded certain questions in this case to regulatory boards. We respect that process and will not be making additional public comments outside those forums while the review moves forward.”

Chris Roy, a Vermont lawyer representing the grocery chain, said he couldn’t comment further this week. Last week, however, Roy told VTDigger that the company saw positives in the court’s ruling.

“A number of things could be addressed by slight modifications to the application. We intend to press forward,” said Roy. “One option is to submit a new application.”

Based in Scarborough, Maine, Hannaford Supermarkets operates 181 stores in in Maine, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It employs more than 26,000 workers, about 2,000 of them in Vermont, Blom said.

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