Big Stores Have Politicians On Edge

Where To Stand And What To Say Become Major Election Issues

Courant Staff Writer

October 19 2005

SIMSBURY -- In politics, Republican John Romano and Democrat John Hampton sometimes agree, but don't usually share much besides a first name.

But this year, the two selectmen have decided to go public against so-called "big-box" development in town, an issue a vocal citizens group is trying to use to galvanize voters in this year's election. The rest of the six candidates for selectman have not addressed the issue directly, in most cases citing legal and ethical reasons when pressed by the group.

While some in town applaud the politicians' candor in an era in which such a blunt answer from an elected official can be rare, others say it's a foolhardy approach, given the fact that the board of selectmen may have to weigh in on the issue in the future. The latter group says offering opinions could prevent them from participating. The town attorney, who acknowledges the dilemma an elected official faces with such an issue, has weighed in and advised board members to withhold opinions for now.

The issue was first brought to the fore by the group Simsbury Homeowners for Responsible Expansion, which formed last spring when Konover & Associates, a prominent regional developer, told neighbors about plans to propose a "large-format" store and shopping center in the south end of town.

Stores such as Wal-Mart or Target are referred to as big-box stores by the homeowners group, and as large format or anchor stores by developers.

The group, which says it has 1,300 members spread across town, quickly mobilized against the idea, and recommended in an elaborate presentation last month that the planning commission ban "big-box" stores. As the election nears, the group is pressing board of selectman candidates for a position.

"We think this is the biggest political issue in town and our leaders should be taking a more clear stance despite the somewhat questionable legal advice they're getting," said Bill Miller, one of the group's founding members.

While some of their colleagues disagreed, Romano and Hampton said they feel they need to be responsive to the group. Romano, who is seeking his fifth term in office, said he consulted lawyers before responding, then sent the group a letter that states he would "work aggressively to stop" any application for a store larger than 30,000 square feet.

"I think it's better for the citizens to know where you stand on something," said Romano, who is seeking his fifth term.

Hampton says he feels other board members have provided vague, non-answers and advocates a more transparent approach. "I think the people deserve more than limp-wristed responses. We get too much governance by lawyers."

But, Joel Mandell, the Republican deputy first selectman, who has reserved comment on the issue because of legal reasons, said Hampton and Mandell's approach may be misguided. He said he thinks the two may have to recuse themselves from possible future discussions by the board of selectmen on development.

While Konover's proposal, if brought officially as an application to the town, is not the bailiwick of board of selectmen, the board does have the power to hold public hearings and comment on the town's plan of conservation and development, which is being rewritten.

Last month, the homeowners group recommended the planning commission include a provision in its draft plan of conservation and development to ban stores larger than 30,000 square feet, which would essentially ban big-box or large-format stores and quash Konover's plan.

So if selectmen hold public hearings on the draft plan, says Mandell, board members who speak out may find they have to stay mum on the issue of large-format store development.

When asked about his memorandum, Town Attorney Robert DeCrescenzo could not say if Romano or Hampton would have to recuse themselves, if they are re-elected and the issue is raised in a public hearing.

"It's very frustrating for me that SHARE pointed the finger and said, `You will give an opinion,"' said Mandell. "We just can't do it. I follow the advice of counsel."

Like Mandell, First Selectman Tom Vincent referred to DeCrescenzo's advice to withhold an opinion when answering the homeowners group.

Moira Wertheimer, the fourth Republican seeking a seat on the board, did not directly address the issue of big-box development in a response to SHARE. She advocated for responsible development, citing the renovation of the Fiddler's Green complex downtown as an example of how the boards and commissions served the town well as "caretakers of Simsbury's character." And she added in her letter that she feels the town needs to reduce its reliance on property tax for revenue.

Democratic candidates David Ryan, who is running for first selectman, Charles "Chip" Houlihan, and Ferguson Jansen also declined to address the "big box" issue directly in responses to SHARE, saying they are hamstrung by legal and ethical restrictions.

Ryan and Jansen are members of the planning commission and Houlihan is a member of the zoning commission. If they don't win seats on the board of selectman, they could box themselves into a corner on their respective commissions, or put the town at serious legal risk if they spouted an opinion before an application has even been submitted, they said.

"If we take an unequivocally negative, or negative position on a hypothetical big-box development, we will have prejudged an application, and we would be disqualified from considering the building application," wrote Houlihan and Ryan in a letter to SHARE. "The town is best served when its land use commissioners do not take positions before an application is submitted."

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant