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2008-05-30
Billerica, MA. Planning Board Leaves Home Depot Without A Home

On October 12, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that the town that stopped Wal-Mart from buying up one of its last farms, now had a Home Depot to contend with -- and neighbors were not pleased. "Our local town newspaper reported that Home Depot coming to Billerica," a citizen's group called Billerica First wrote. "Their plan is to move into the partially vacated Billerica Mall which is situated on Boston Rd (Billerica's ' Main St' ) within 1/2 mile of the historic town common. The Billerica Town Manager was quoted in the same report as being enthusiastic about how Home Depot will positively impact the town's tax base; a rep from the local Chamber of Commerce was quoted as saying Home Depot would bring jobs to Billerica. I have been told that this is pretty much a done deal as the Mall area zoning will allow for Home Depot to move right in; that there is nothing the residents can do to stop it. I was also told that Home Depot will need to expand the present building; and that building permits will be required. The Town Manager stated that 'hearings' will be held in the near future. There are, however, many townspeople, who have voiced their concerns about Home Depot moving to Billerica and destroying several local businesses." From that point on, every move that Home Depot made was countered by opposition from Billerica First. One year later, on October 19, 2006, Sprawl-Busters noted that Home Depot had announced it was scaling back its plan. "The Mall/Home Depot attorney asked for and received a continuance on their proposal until November 27," Billerica First reported. "Attorney Steve Lentine told the Board that the developers are considering changing the proposal and submitting a more scaled-back plan for the Mall. While Lentine claimed he was 99% certain that a different plan would be proposed, he wanted to keep his options open until the developers were certain. There was visible frustration from the Planning Board, but they did grant Lentine the extension. As of now we do not know what this different proposal will entail. We have heard rumors that Burlington Coat Factory will close, and the proposed Home Depot would go forward in a smaller shopping center. The theory is that with a smaller shopping center, the traffic problems go away for the developer. We do not necessarily agree with this thinking. Another rumor, and a more palatable one, is that the proposed Home Depot will not be built and a different array of retail stores will go into a renovated mall. Obviously, this is preferable; we have always said a mix of medium sized stores and restaurants is more appropriate and in line with the Master Plan. However, we do not know what is in the cards right now." The Lowell Sun newspaper said the developer "shocked" the Planning Board that the $20 million "mall revitalization" project might be withdrawn and resubmitted on a smaller scale. "Information surfaced late Friday afternoon that may significantly reduce the scope of the project and the entire development of the mall," the lawyer for R.D. Management said. "Due to the potential changes, it really doesn't make sense to go forward with the traffic discussion." One Planning Board member suggested that the board should dismiss the entire plan outright. "How long are we going to sit here and listen to a proposal that is pretty much off of the table?" he asked. "You've disappointed many people this evening, and I am not sure it has helped your cause," another board member told the developer. If the plan is withdrawn and a new proposal submitted, the permitting process will begin again at square one. This week, Home Depot lost a critical vote at the town level. The Billerica Planning Board voted 4-2 in favor of the plan -- but the project needed 5 out of 6 votes to pass. A seventh member of the Board was ineligible to vote on the plan because she was not seated on the Board when the project was first filed. "It is the scale and the size," one Board member told the Lowell Sun. "A 133,000-square-foot warehouse store does concern me." He noted that 40% of the mall would be occupied by Home Depot, which he said would leave Billerica "at risk for the next economic downturn." Attorney Steve Lentine, representing FB Billerica Realty LLC and mall owner RD Management, would not reveal whether his clients would appeal the decision. Fred Ciampa, a spokesman for Billerica First, told the newspaper, "We will continue to fight this right to the end. We are prepared to do that." Ciampa said the Planning Board "did their homework and what they felt was best for the community." The debate at the Planning Board lasted more than 3 hours, and the Board had generated a list of 48 conditions to include in the project -- including a requirement that the developer pay $240,000 for traffic enhancements to accommodate the big store, and another $100,000 for design work. The developer's attorney objected to that cost. "We are the only business being singled out to contribute to the Town Common fund," attorney Lentine argued. "We are contributing over $1 million in off-site traffic improvements that will mitigate our traffic impact and beyond." Home Depot offered to add pedestrian walkways, a sidewalk at the mall's entrance, and expanding the road in front of the mall to four lanes. The developer's lawyer said that Billerica's town bylaws do not require developers to pay for mitigating existing conditions. For now, the headline in the Billerica Minuteman sums up more than two and half years of grassroots organizing: "Homeless Depot."

What you can do: It is likely that the developer will go to court over this denial. Home Depot has already lost millions of dollars in sales at this potential location. Because of the work of Billerica First, what first appeared as a slam-dunk for Home Depot has turned into a defeat. The vote in Billerica comes at a time when Home Depot has shut down 15 'underperforming' stores and held back on another 50 proposed projects. The retailer is retrenching during a rough housing market. A protracted court battle in Billerica only leads to more legal bills, and no sales. Readers are urged to contact Billerica Planning Board members Bob Casey and Paul Marasco, who voted against the Home Depot plan, by emailing pkennedy@town.billerica.ma.us with the following message: "Dear Chairman Marasco and Mr. Casey, Thank you for having the courage to vote against the powerful national chain store. Home Depot's plan -- even as modified -- is still far too large for its location, and is harmful to the surrounding neighborhood. The Planning Board gave this project ample time to adjust to the realities of that location and roadway -- and they were not able to muster enough votes to gain approval. We hope the developer will not drag this through the courts, but they will have to show that the Board was arbitrary and capricious. They will also force Billerica taxpayers to spend money on a legal fight that could have gone to schools, police and fire, or other needed services. It would be better for all parties if the developer would simply come up with a more appropriately scaled tenant plan, and get on with the work of reconfiguring their mall without creating a win/lose situation for all the neighbors and the town."










 
 
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