To Speak or Not to Speak
Big-box development is a major issue to Simsbury voters, but a legal question has kept many board of selectmen candidates quiet on the issue

- November 3, 2005

NICK LACY PHOTO

Feature

Developers hope to bring a ¨big-box¨ store to this site in Simsbury.

A Simsbury citizens' group wants candidates in the upcoming town elections to say what they think about the prospect of a big retailer like Target or Home Depot coming to town. That, despite a warning from the town's attorney that the candidates should stay out of it.

It started when Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion, or SHARE a group of about of 1,300 Simsbury residents opposed to big-box development formed this summer. Its purpose, members say, is to oppose Konover and Associates, a major New England development firm that has proposed putting a retail center on an undeveloped parcel of land in the southern part of town.

The land for the planned development is commonly known as the CL & P property, named for former owner, the Connecticut Light and Power Company. Currently owned by Mark Greenberg, the property is on the east side of Hopmeadow Street (Route 10) across from Blue Ridge Drive and Lincoln Lane, near the Avon border. The development would be anchored by a big-box tenant, such as Target or Home Depot, in a 128,000-square-foot building.

A big-box tenant that is not situated on Route 44 would be "inappropriate for the town," Bill Miller, a SHARE spokesperson says. The group's website adds that it would adversely affect traffic and the unique character and beauty of Simsbury.

Konover and Associates officials say their plan would fit in with Simsbury and with the site itself. According to Bill Neagus, a Konover spokesperson, the anchor tenant would be set back 600 feet from the road, with landscaping, trees and stone walls to help the building site blend in.

In an effort to block the plan, SHARE submitted a proposal to the Simsbury Planning Commission to be included in the town's Plan of Conservation and Development, which is being updated. The SHARE proposal would, in part, prohibit single-use retail structures over 30,000 square feet anywhere in town, except on Route 44.

The group has also asked candidates for the board of selectmen to vocalize their positions before the upcoming Nov. 8 elections.

"They are leaders in town, we have an election coming up and this is a huge issue in town. We feel it's important for voters to know their position," Miller says.

However, Town Attorney Robert DeCrescenzo advised board of selectmen members to refrain from taking a public stance on the issue. In a letter to Republican First Selectman Tom Vincent, he explains that while the board has no zoning authority, it does have an opportunity to offer input. To make sure that future land-use hearings are conducted without predetermined views (as law requires), selectmen should reserve their comments, he said.

SHARE members disagreed, noting that since members of the board of selectmen won't vote on the plan, they are free to comment on it.

Despite the town attorney's advice, two incumbent candidates, John Hampton, a Democrat, and John Romano, a Republican, have said they won't support big-box development in town. While some praise them (SHARE backs both candidates), others criticize them for speaking out.

First Selectman Vincent says he is not sure whether Hampton and Romano will have to remove themselves from the deliberations to avoid a conflict of interest, but Republican Deputy First Selectman Joel Mandell says that they will have to when certain issues come before the board. "They didn't follow the advice of our town counsel," he says.

Hampton and Romano say that, as elected officials, they should publicly voice their opinions. They agree that new Democratic candidates Dave Ryan (running for first selectman), Ferg Jansen and Chip Houlihan (both selectmen candidates) should withhold public comment on the issue. Ryan and Jansen sit on the town planning commission. Houlihan is on the zoning commission.

"As far as I'm concerned, incumbents should take a position. That's what we are elected to do," Romano says.

"If you say 'no comment,' you're not accountable," Hampton says. "As a town official, people expect you to take stands on issues and not hide behind an attorney."

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