Much Ado About Nothing?

Conflicts Of Interest Overshadow Debate Over Big Box

By Jennifer Abel

May 3 2007

Depending on whom you talk to in Simsbury, the proposed River Oaks development will do one of three things for the town: make it better than before, ruin it forever, or nothing, because the plan isn’t, like, official or anything, so why fret over it?

Here’s the deal: on Route 10 out by the Avon line sits a large parcel of land known as the CL&P property (since they owned it for most of the last 50 years). It’s a mostly empty plot where the Konover Development Corporation’s proposing to build a project combining residential apartments, retail and office space, and an officially unnamed big-box store (though a picture in the River Oaks brochure clearly shows a Target).

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, between private monies and tax revenue for the town. Oh, and one more thing: for any of this to take place, the zoning board would have to switch the CL&P property status from “industrial” to “mixed use.”

Back on topic: a big-box store proposed where none stood before invariably brings out future neighbors who oppose it. In Simsbury this role is played by the group called SHARE (Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion).

“Route 44 … is a four-lane highway where the big-box stores are,” says SHARE president Bill Miller. “Route 10 is a two-lane highway and we want to keep it as such. Putting in the big box will require turning 10 into a four-lane highway.”

Not so, says T.J. Donohue, a consultant for Konover. “We … are proposing … an efficient way to handle traffic and preserve Route 10 as a two-lane road.”

Regardless of whether traffic gets worse in town there’s also the economic impact to be considered: SHARE cites studies showing that big-box stores ruin local economies, while Konover’s studies show big boxes benefit a town’s bottom line.

So far this sounds like the standard pro- or anti-big-box debate that plays out every week in towns across America. Here’s where things get unique: officially, this whole thing is a non-issue.

“There hasn’t been an application yet” presented to the town, says Michael Bradley, former zoning board chairman. Howard Beach, from the town’s community and planning department, agrees: no formal application by Konover, just a lot of talk and some brochures mailed to residents showing how pretty the proposed development will be.

“That’s the line everybody behind this is giving,” says Chuck Ward of SHARE.

Ward and SHARE make a case for conflicts of interest, except that every single charge can be explained away. Zoning board member Patricia Askham’s husband works for an accounting firm that’s done work for Konover, yes, but Askham says “I have always recused myself from any votes that involved Konover.” Bradley was indeed a real-estate broker doing work for Konover when the River Oaks idea first was floated, but he resigned from the board when word got out. Louis Donofrio is an attorney whose firm has done work for Konover, but he’s recused himself too.

SHARE says these people didn’t recuse themselves until SHARE disclosed their conflicts. The commissioners reply that SHARE is getting its dates wrong. Furthermore, they say, there is no conflict of interest involved because Konover hasn’t made an application yet.

Land-use attorney Mark Branse disagrees with this interpretation. Branse said the state ethics code mandates that a zoning commissioner “avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.”

By that standard, then even if every claim made by SHARE is false, the zoning commissioners whom SHARE targeted for attention still warrant multiple second looks, regardless of whether River Oaks will help or hurt the town.●

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