Judge rules in favor of Easthampton Stop & Shop, allowing project to move forward

Last modified: Saturday, July 20, 2013

EASTHAMPTON — Three years after receiving city approval, the Stop & Shop supermarket planned for Northampton Street can move forward now that a judge has cleared the way.

The matter has been mired in court for the nearly 3½ years since city officials approved it in January 2010.

Hampshire Superior Court Judge Bertha Josephson Wednesday approved the company’s request to throw out the lawsuit brought Feb. 17, 2010, by Kenneth Cernak, owner of Cernak Buick across the street from the proposed store site, to block construction.

The city’s Planning Board approved the construction of the store on the 35-acre parcel that now holds Tasty Top on Jan. 20, 2010 , but the supermarket chain put off construction because of court challenges by Cernak.

“Stop & Shop is happy that the Superior Court has now completely affirmed the zoning relief that the Easthampton Planning Board granted Stop & Shop over three years ago,” Stop & Shop’s attorney Kevin P. O’Flaherty said in an email Thursday. “Stop & Shop continues to look forward to being able to serve the residents of Easthampton and the surrounding area.”

O’Flaherty and a Stop & Shop spokeswoman declined to specify when the store construction will take place.

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, who has supported the project from the beginning, said the project can’t start soon enough.

“I’m looking forward to having them get started,” he said. “The area is appropriately zoned for the business and this has been a long, drawn-out battle. I think the presence of the Stop & Shop is going to be a boon for all businesses in the area.”

When reached by phone Thursday, Cernak said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision.

Cernak’s business is a neighbor to the proposed grocery store site, and his lawsuit alleged that the traffic caused by the store would impede access to his dealership at 102 Northampton St.

Josephson’s ruling centered around the argument of Cernak’s attorney, Mark A. Tanner, that the Planning Board’s decision was “arbitrary” and unlawful because it approved plans he alleged violated zoning and obstructed access to Cernak’s business.

Josephson had ruled in favor of Stop & Shop Nov. 29, 2010, but then allowed reconsideration of the matter while another judge evaluated whether the Planning Board’s decision was influenced by outside contact with the company. Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder found that the board’s decision was legitimate.

Josephson’s seven-page ruling dated Wednesday states the Planning Board’s actions in regard to traffic were within bounds, and therefore not subject to judicial interference. Because the grocery store submitted traffic mitigation plans, including a traffic light and street widening to “help maintain the proper traffic flow,” Josephson ruled that Cernak’s objections are not valid.

“At the core of the plaintiffs’ claim is an assertion that the board misweighed the evidence, not that it acted without basis in evidence,” she wrote. “The board’s action must be upheld if a rational basis for it, backed by articulable facts, exists.”

Tautznik said he is pleased the city’s decision was found to be legitimate. “I think it’s very good, I was always confident that the Planning Board made a judicious decision,” he said.

Opponents disappointed

City Councilor Daniel C. Hagan, who lives on nearby Highland Avenue, said he was “somewhat disappointed” to hear about the court’s decision. “I don’t think it’s what the neighborhood wants,” he said. “But I’m glad the courts took a look at it and I guess it’s their right to build.”

He said his main concern is traffic, because traffic studies showed that thousands of additional cars would be traveling Northampton Street. “I think it will bottle up traffic,” he said. “We’re going from one traffic light to four, and in my experience, traffic lights slow down traffic.”

His worries were echoed by residents who visited Big E’s Supermarket Thursday afternoon.

“It’s going to be a clogged Route 10 then,” resident Barbara Miller said when she heard the project was moving forward. “I’d actually love to have a Stop & Shop in the area, but it’s the wrong spot. They’re going to have to do something about traffic, because it’s already too crowded at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.”

Lisa Boyle said she shops at Big E’s and Big Y Supermarket is less than two miles away in Southampton. “How many grocery stores do you need?” she asked. “I don’t think there’s a need for it.”

Resident Jerry Jock took a different view, saying he thinks a new supermarket is “long overdue.”

“It’s a good idea because competition is good,” he said. “What other grocery stores are there in town? It’s just Big E’s.”

Mary Mathers of Oak Ridge Circle, who supported the project at a Planning Board hearing in 2009, said Thursday that she still thinks the store will be a good addition to the city.

“I think it will bring jobs and tax dollars to the city, and the city definitely needs those,” she said. “And competition is good for everybody. It’s good for people to have choices of where they shop.”

Standing at Tasty Top with a melting ice cream cone, Northampton resident Michael Crand said he harbors conflicted feelings about the supermarket project.

He said he is concerned about the added cars congesting Route 10, but acknowledged that it is a commercial area that is meant for development. “Stop & Shop has every right to come in. There’s no real aesthetic here to preserve,” he said.

“But I guess it is a kind of loss of town character,” he said. “To lose the little ice cream shack.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


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