Townspeople suggest grocery store site could be a park instead

By MADELINE HUGHES

As Hannaford plans to again appeal a local permit denial of its plans for a supermarket in Hinesburg, the local citizens’ group opposed to the project is looking to convince town officials to take a new approach.

Several dozen residents turned out Monday night for the Hinesburg Selectboard’s meeting where they said that they have been collecting pledges to potentially help the town buy the controversial property using the municipality’s powers of eminent domain.

The Hinesburg Development Review Board denied Hannaford a local permits on Oct. 17 and the Maine-based supermarket chain has since filed an appeal of that decision with the Vermont Environmental Court.

The move follows the pattern so far in Hannaford’s eight-year pursuit of a store location in Hinesburg. In 2010 the company brought to the town its plans for a 36,000-square-foot store with 128 parking spots for a roughly five-acre site in Commerce Park in the middle of Hinesburg village. The plans also included room for a farmers market.

Challenges from the citizen group Responsible Growth Hinesburg and appeals in response by Hannaford landed the case before the Vermont Supreme Court which ruled last spring, sending the project back to seek local approvals once again.

The zoning board last month denied the development based on concerns about traffic and how it would address stormwater.

Monday night was the first public discussion to take a new tack with the topic of eminent domain, the process by which the government might acquire private property for public use after paying the landowner for it. 

It’s an option the Selectboard is not quick to embrace.

“I don’t think the Selectboard is ready to move in one direction or another,” Chair Phil Pouech told the crowded room of residents Monday night.

“There are lots of moving pieces,” he said, adding that this was not a question of whether or not Hannaford should have a store in Hinesburg – it was a decision about the parcel’s future use.

Town map is another tool

In 2009, Hinesburg created an official land use map that outlines future uses such as community facilities, sidewalks, roads and growth areas.

The land where Hannaford wants to build is located near the corner of Commerce Street and Mechanicsville Road – a spot on the map designated for future community facilities.

In designing their plans for a supermarket, Hannaford officials included using some of their site for a farmer’s market to address that designation on the map.

The gesture wouldn’t hold much weight, however, unless Hannaford was able to guarantee the market space would be permanent and thereby following the town map, explained Development Review Coordinator Mitchel Cypes.

That shortcoming was another reason the Zoning Board gave in denying Hannaford’s plans in October.

Alex Weinhagen, director of planning and zoning, explained that commercial properties can contain plans for future uses that match an official town map and it’s then up to the town to enforce that map.

If a project fails to comply with a town map and is rejected – as in the Hannaford case –  the Selectboard has 120 days to exercise its right of eminent domain. If the town does nothing in that timeframe then the Development Review Board can no longer cite the town map as a reason to deny the project, Weinhagen said.

Full house on Monday

That’s precisely the option that members of Responsible Growth Hinesburg asked the Selectboard to consider on Monday.

Member Catherine Goldsmith asked for time to present strategies to acquire the Hannaford parcel “for public use without the use of tax dollars.”

It was standing room only as dozens gathered to voice their opinions.

“It’s like a game of Tetris in here,” Town Administrator Renae Marshall said as the crowd squeezed into the room.

Board Chair Pouech apologized for using the small space but noted that Election Day polls were already set up in the larger room upstairs.

The discussion ensued about the property that is still owned by the Giroux Family Trust, which owned all of the land for the Commercial Park shopping area.

The parcel in question, Lot 15, is one of the last undeveloped lots, and has been for sale for more than 30 years. Members of both the Selectboard and the citizen group expressed a desire for the trust to get a fair price for the land.

So far, Responsible Growth Hinesburg has received more than $100,000 in pledges to buy the land to preserve the wetlands it contains, Goldsmith said.

A letter to the Selectboard from the group promises: “We are continuing to fundraise. We understand that additional money will be needed for legal fees as well as for land acquisition. The town could also commit funds from the Vermont Gas payment, the Land Conservation fund, and if the balance could be loaned from the Hinesburg Revolving Loan Fund, this land could be saved as the village grows around it. These pledged funds would require that the 1.2 acres of wetland be protected forever and the land be used for community space. Our group would pursue grant funds for wetlands restoration.”

Addressing stormwater was a key concern during the permit hearings for the Hannaford project. Experts for the citizen group testified that Hannaford’s plans were not up to state standards, and the board essentially agreed.

The citizen group suggested that the timing may be right to consider a completely different future for this spot.

“Our understanding is this is a way to end the unending legal battle,” Goldsmith said about exercising eminent domain.

The town could acquire the parcel, preserve the wetlands and also use the site as park space, they suggested.

“Traditionally we think of eminent domain as being used for power plants and highways, and we think of that as public good,” said Meg Handler, also with the citizen group. “We need to start thinking of public good in terms of what people really need, and we really need natural spaces.”

Police Chief Frank Koss attended the meeting, and asked if the question could be put to a town vote. Pouech answered that the 120-day window was too short for a Town Meeting Day vote in March.

“We will look at this and take the necessary time to make a good decision,” Pouech said, closing out the hour of discussion. He added there would be no immediate decisions. “This is not a simple issue, but it’s an issue we want to do right by the town.”

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