Town asks court for more time on Lot 15: Ideas abound for Commerce Park site

By MADELINE HUGHES

What to do with Lot 15 of Hinesburg’s Commerce Park?

That’s the question on many residents’ minds as the Hinesburg Selectboard has been fielding various opinions, receiving 17 letters from concerned residents and hearing from the citizen group Responsible Growth Hinesburg at two recent Selectboard meetings.

The number of responses are “helping us understand the breadth of the situation,” said board Chair Phil Pouech. “We are listening closely to what people are saying.”

Pouech estimated that the board met in executive session for a total of two hours on the subject over the past month. The board is also getting feedback regarding the latest application for  Hannaford to build a supermarket on Lot 15.

In a motion dated Nov. 27, the town asked the Vermont Environmental Court for more time to make a decision on what the next steps might be. The Environmental Court is expected to within the next four weeks make a decision whether to grant the Hinesburg Selectboard a stay – a suspension – that will pause the 120-day time period that began in October after the town Development Review Board rejected the grocery company’s latest permit application. Details connected with that denial allowed the town 120 days to consider taking a new approach regarding the future of the 4.8-acre site.

The Selectboard is in this position because part of the Development Review Board ruling noted that Hannaford’s development plans did not conform to the official town map.

The map, implemented in 2009, outlines the commercially zoned lot in question as a place for a “community facility.” The Development Review Board said Hannaford’s plans to include a space for a farmers market did not satisfy that requirement.

“At that time no one thought a project of (Hannaford’s) size could be developed there,” explained Alex Weinhagen, Hinesburg’s director of planning and zoning, referring to when the map was completed before Hannaford submitted development plans. Multiple developers had submitted proposals to develop the site, which is the only remaining lot left in town zoned to accommodate a commercial building over 20,000 square feet. And, since the map has been in place, Commerce Park developed around the land.

Because the ruling was based on the town map, the town government is then allowed to step in to buy the land for the intended purpose. That process – called eminent domain – is where  government might buy private property for public use.

However, traffic and stormwater also played a role in the Development Review Board’s denial of the project. The state’s Act 250 permits have also stalled development.

“There’s a lot of other legal decisions that are happening around the (Development Review Board) decision that could impact what we choose to do or not do,” Pouech said.

Asking the Environmental Court for the delay in the prescribed time for the town to act would potentially allow for decisions involving those other issues –  traffic and stormwater – to be made, court documents show.

“A stay will provide Hannaford with the opportunity for this Court to review its side plan application on its merits,” the motion states. “While the Town has yet to decide whether to commence such proceedings, if the (Development Review Board) decision isn’t stayed, the Town will lose an opportunity to acquire Lot 15 at its ‘bare land’ value.”

Development limbo

In 2010, the Maine-based grocery chain Hannaford Brothers Co. asked the town to develop a 36,000 square-foot grocery store with 128 parking spaces on Lot 15 of Commerce Park in the middle of the village. In the eight years since then, the town, Hannaford and the citizen group have been entangled in litigation over the land.

Hannaford develops stores ranging in size, but 36,000 square feet is a common size, said Hannaford spokesman Eric Bloom.

“We have both smaller- and larger-sized stores as well,” he said.

Hannaford is pursuing legal remedies, and Bloom declined to comment on the Hinesburg case further.

Now local residents are debating whether the town government should step in and use eminent domain to acquire the property.

Hinesburg resident Dawn Francis posted her thoughts through social media, and the post “went viral.”

“I think whether or not the town should acquire Lot 15 is really about prioritizing and maximizing the use of commercially zoned land, of which we have a pretty limited supply of in Hinesburg,” Francis told the Selectboard at the  Dec. 10 meeting. “Why would we take the only vacant commercially zoned parcel in our community that could accommodate more than 20,000 square feet of retail use on commerce street?”

Francis joked with the board that she has no agenda, just time as a retired town planner and town manager who is interested in development and wanted to share her point of view.

Others joined in the online conversation, and seven of the 17 letters submitted to the board mentioned Francis and agreed with the points she made. Francis also submitted a letter herself. Four other people also wrote that the commercial value of this property should be recognized.

One letter-writer asked the board to prioritize the land behind the police station, also known as Lot 1, as a town green. Four letters supported using eminent domain.

“From the family side, that’s kind of a heartbreaking thing to hear,” Matthew Giroux said about the land being acquired through eminent domain.

The land is still owned by his family’s trust, which he is not a part of, according to town records, and the trust is paying the annual town property taxes.

Town tax records show the parcel is assessed at a value of $205,300 and the Giroux Family Trust paid $4,261 in property taxes on it in 2018.

Hannaford officials would not comment on the company’s legal relationship with the Giroux family.

Commerce Park history

Commerce Park was developed when Giroux’s grandfather Victor and his brother Bernard bought land in Hinesburg to help foster economic growth in the village. Since then, multiple businesses have been built in Commerce Park.

Three other Giroux family members submitted letters to the Selectboard reiterating the family’s intentions for the land.

“It was sometime in the 1960s when my Dad, Victor Giroux, and his brother Bernard bought the land where Commerce Park now sits,” wrote Patti Drew, whose maiden name is Giroux, in a letter to the Selectboard. “It was a financial stretch for them, to say the least. But they had a vision of what this piece of land might do for the town someday… to develop the land into businesses that would bring tax dollars into the town, provide jobs to the people of Hinesburg and provide much needed commerce to the area.”

Drew’s brother Steven Giroux also sent in a letter to the board.

“From my perspective, it is wrong for the town to acquire Lot 15 for no other reason than to prevent a potential developer from obtaining it,” he  wrote. “If Lot 15 were to be acquired, it should only be done with a clear plan in mind.”

The Giroux Family was not directly consulted on the land use before the town map was implemented in 2009.

“I think we probably as a planning commission and the Selectboard did make a mistake in the first adoption of our official map of not talking individually to all the landowners where items on the official map were placed,” said Selectboard member Andrea Morgante at the Nov. 5 Selectboard meeting.

She added that town officials did not receive complaints after the map was adopted.

Now the Planning Commission is working on updating the town map. The commission published a draft in October, and has been collecting feedback since. Lot 15 is still marked for future community facilities in the proposed town map.

The draft of the new town map can be found online at bit.ly/2Exsqx4.

The letters submitted to the Selectboard also can be found online at bit.ly/2GoGCLp.

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