‘That’s how it works in a small town’: Selectboard decides against eminent domain

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Over a dozen members of the public voiced their opinions regarding the selectboard’s motion to begin the condemnation process of Lot 15 on Monday night. The board ultimately voted the motion down.

Staff Reporter

In a standing-room-only meeting Monday night, the Hinesburg Selectboard voted against pursuing eminent domain on Lot 15, the space in town where Hannaford Brothers Co. wants to build the town’s largest grocery store.

Tensions were high in the main meeting room of the Town Hall Monday night while the selectboard met to discuss the potential acquisition of the land. Over a dozen Hinesburg residents voiced their opinion to the selectboard at the meeting, the last opportunity in the months-long process where board members received emails, letters, phone calls and other messages about the land.

“Eminent domain is serious business,” selectboard chair Phil Pouech reiterated at the end of the meeting.

Multiple members of the public shared the same sentiment. Hinesburg resident Bill Baker shared his family’s story of having land taken by the federal government for the Appalachian Tail.

“This is not the appropriate use of eminent domain,” Baker said.

Selectboard member Andrea Morgante opened the meeting with a motion that would begin the process of establishing a condemnation hearing for Lot 15. In the interim, the board would have surveyed the land and gotten an appraisal.

Multiple people voiced that the town should follow through with this first step to get more information to make its decision.

“I urge you to take that first step to look into this,” resident Carl Bohlen said.

He added that the court might rule about stormwater and traffic while the town was in the process of holding a condemnation hearing.

But the board voted to deny the motion after over an hour of public discussion. Selectboard members Tom Ayer, Merrily Lovell, Aaron Kimball and Pouech voted “no” for the motion. Morgante voted in favor of her motion.

The board has until Feb. 14 to decide what to do about the land and was seeking a motion to stay – pause on the decision – from the Vermont Environmental Court. That motion was rejected Monday, Chair Pouech said.

The timeline was based on an October development review board decision regarding the Hannaford Brother’s Co. proposed development, which the review board said did not comply with the town map.

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.

In 2010, the Maine-based grocery chain sought a permit to develop a 36,000 square-foot store 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 Responsible Growth Hinesburg have been tangled in litigation over the land. The application has gone to the Vermont Environmental Court, the State Supreme Court, and back to the local review board.

Lot 15 is the last remaining undeveloped parcel of land in Hinesburg zoned to accommodate a commercial building over 20,000 square feet. The Commerce Park area was originally intended to be developed as a commercial center for town, members of the Giroux family said. It’s the last parcel in the development still owned by the Giroux Family Trust.

Members from the Giroux family sat by Monday night watching the selectboard discuss the future of the family’s property. The property has been in the family for decades since Victor Giroux and his brother Bernard bought land in Hinesburg to help foster economic growth in the village. The brothers subdivided the land for commercial development in 1986. Since then, multiple businesses have been built in Commerce Park. Lot 15 is the remaining plot of the land yet to be developed.

“There were a lot of us there last night, and talking amongst ourselves today, we are happy,” Matt Giroux, Victor’s grandson, said Tuesday. “It’s a good thing, but more than that it was the right decision that had to be made. It reinstalled trust in the selectboard that we vote for to make those hard decisions.

“My grandfather was a businessman through and through, and he also enjoyed helping people out,” Giroux said. “And helping bring businesses to town, helping provide that place, is what he wanted.”

He added that people who have been against the development project have been focusing on “keeping Hinesburg Hinesburg.” However, he said he felt the sense of community from the small town Monday night as his friends, neighbors and strangers all stood up to voice their opinions.

“It’s a good feeling to sit there with family members and have people standing up and speaking for you,” Giroux said. “That isn’t going to change (because of Hannaford). That’s how it works in a small town.”

The Hinesburg Development Review Board decision is continuing in the Environmental Court because of stormwater and traffic concerns, which the board also cited in the denial of the project in October. The project also needs Act 250 approval.

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