Walmart on the way? Trumbull takes issue with Monroe project

A special meeting of the Monroe Planning and Zoning Commission last Thursday night resulted in a narrow 3-2 vote in favor of approving a Special Exception Permit for the construction of a 160,492-square-foot retail stored believed to be Wal-Mart.

But Trumbull may not take the approval lying down. First Selectman Timothy Herbst has voiced opposition to the project, citing environmental and traffic concerns. Following the permit approval, Herbst said this week that the town is exploring its legal options.

“We continue to have those concerns and I will be coordinating with town attorneys to see what our options are as far as protecting the best interests of our town,” Herbst said.

Trumbull is worried about the environmental impact of the development on the Pequonnock and exacerbating traffic issues on Route 25, Herbst said.

The Monroe commission made a handful of minor alterations to the terms defined in its letter before putting its approval to a vote, with Planning and Zoning Chairman Patrick O’Hara, Vice Chairman William Porter and James Weinberg voting in favor and Cathleen Lindstrom and Brian Quinn opposing. Karen Martin recused herself from the vote because of a conflict of interest.

The decision comes after the commission heard community input on the issue at two public hearings, held in November and December. Despite residents’ concerns over the impact on smaller businesses in town, the effect of a large commercial structure abutting residential zones, traffic, and other issues, O’Hara reiterated statements made at the previous zoning meeting. The commission’s job, O’Hara said, is to ensure the applicant is conforming to zoning regulations, and not to determine whether certain types of businesses are qualified to be built in town, as was argued during the public hearings. Furthermore, he said, most of the statements made about the project during the hearings weren’t backed up with hard evidence, and would require expert testimony in order to be considered, which was not provided, he said.

Additionally, O’Hara said, the application is consistent with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), has a storm water management plan, has been approved by the Inland Wetlands Commission, and abides by parking regulations. He also reiterated that Monroe zoning regulations allow for the kind of large-scale retail development that has been proposed in the application.

O’Hara also criticized the neighboring town of Trumbull for its objections to the big box store. At a fall meeting of the commission, Trumbull Director of Planning and Development Jamie Bratt insisted the store would cause too much of a traffic burden for Trumbull on Route 25, but O’Hara argued that “Trumbull is forever building on our border,” and adding more traffic to the area than Monroe businesses do.

“I’m not impressed with our friends in Trumbull and I’d like to think in the future they’d be better neighbors,” O’Hara said.

Herbst responded to O’Hara’s criticisms, saying the commissioner’s comments were “ignorant and devoid of fact.”

The first selectman noted that all the Trumbull development on the border with Monroe, including the Route 111 shopping plaza and Home Depot, are well-planned.

“Home Depot is set back so people of Monroe can’t even see it and there is a traffic signal for proper ingress and egress,” Herbst said.

Trumbull’s border development and land-use has not caused traffic issues with any of its neighboring communities, unlike Monroe, according to Herbst.

“Much of the traffic problems on 25 have been a direct result of poor planning by the Town of Monroe the last 40 years,” Herbst said. “I really don’t think it’s appropriate and I think it’s insulting to suggest we have not shown consideration for our neighbors.”

Monroe meeting

Not everyone at last Thursday’s meeting was as enthusiastic about approving the project as O’Hara was, however. Commissioner Lindstrom spoke in opposition to the big box store application, arguing that the existence of the retailer would change how people enter and exit Monroe, thereby changing the nature of the town plan as a whole. If the commission feels that it is important to reflect the changing times by becoming more commercial, then the town plan should be changed and residents should be informed that that’s the direction in which Monroe is heading, Lindstrom said, adding that it was part of the commission’s obligation as a planning body.

Lindstrom also said it was both rare and “unsettling” to be kept in the dark about which retailer had submitted the application.

While the applicant and those in the know have been coy about the identity of the mystery retailer, evidence from the public hearings has always pointed to Wal-Mart.

The project architect, MMA Architects, lists Wal-Mart among its retail clients, and the building in the application bears a resemblance to Wal-Marts on the firm’s design portfolio, including splashes of the retailer’s signature blue.

Architect Gabe Massa of MMA Architects even referred to “Wal-Mart” at the first hearing when answering a question, causing more than a few chuckles from the audience, before catching himself.

Still, the applicant has avoided admitting what retailer would use the space, to the point of putting stand-in signs that say “Retail Name” in the application in lieu of the store name and “Entry 1” and “Entry 2” instead of what it will say over the doors. Creative euphemisms used in place of naming the applicant have included “the operator” and “the retailer we’re working with.”

Developer John Kimball acknowledged that the generic words on the architectural renderings looked odd at the first public hearing to address the application.

“It looks silly to have what we have on the building, I know,” he said at the November hearing, but he said the secrecy was what the unnamed retailer wanted.