By John Sakata, Berkshire Eagle Staff
SHEFFIELD -- Selectmen face some opposition in the lead-up to a legal challenge over the development of a proposed Dollar General store.
Concerns are centered around the legal costs associated with a courtroom battle with building developer Primax Properties over the development of a 9,100-square-foot lot on 666-680 North Main St.
The Finance Committee in July handcuffed the town within its current budget for legal expenses, requiring a special town meeting vote if it wants to increase the current $36,000 allocation. Town officials have not announced the date of a special town meeting, but that hasn’t stopped a resident from gathering signatures to add an article that would impose legal expense limits.
"There are enough people out here that are interested in not seeing tax dollars spent on legal expenses in an attempt to defend what I feel is an indefensible case," said Sheffield resident David West, a regular Select Board meeting attendee. West said he’s collected signatures from 200 registered voters to cap legal spending.
In May, the town and Primax Properties was set on course for a legal showdown after the Zoning Board of Appeals [ZBA] rescinded a building permit for a proposed Dollar General Store, citing zoning bylaw violations. The ZBA cited 10 bylaw violations surrounding, parking, landscaping, and the future sale of dairy and liquor not approved to be solid the area.
The building permit issued by Building Inspector Thomas Carmody has been criticized by critics for a lack of review and being approved only a single day after being re-submitted.
Primax Properties has asserted it is in compliance with zoning bylaws, and the ZBA violated proper procedure and overstepped its jurisdiction to rescind its building permit.
While town officials prepare in closed-door meetings for a case management conference on Sept. 10, there are local efforts that could restrict what Selectman can do to challenge Primax in land court.
Finance Committee Chairman David Steindler on Thursday expressed concern about pulling from the town’s $76,000 in reserves. The Select Board has not publicly disclosed the cost of a legal battle, but any significant increase should be approved by town voters, Steindler said.
The Select Board has discretion on legal fund use, but $10,000 of the $36,000 is earmarked for legal discussions with General Electric concerning a cleanup of the Housatonic River, also known as the "Rest of the River" agreement.
"We felt this would deplete the reserve funds dangerously," Steindler said.
The Finance Committee has the right to allocate additional funding in "unforeseen" and "extraordinary" circumstances, Steindler said. But the Finance Committee during a July meeting agreed that any additional legal expenses should be approved at a special town meeting.
Before asking for funding, Steindler said residents should know the likelihood of prevailing victorious in the case.
West said he’s been collecting petition signatures for the last month to bring a voice to those concerned about the potential costs.
West has been collecting signatures for two petitions. One petition, which has 180 signatures, is to raise the profile of people concerned about legal costs. The other, which has about 200 signatures, would impose an undefined legal spending limit if there is a special town meeting to increase legal fees.
However, he added, he could need to re-collect signatures because a town meeting is unlikely until October. The petition refers to a September town meetings.
"Perhaps this petition will help in the decision-making on discussions with the town’s legal counsel and encourage them to do it in the least expensive way," West said.
West and Steindler both expressed skepticism the town could win a legal challenge based on information previously expressed by the town’s legal council. The ZBA’s decision penalizes Dollar General for infractions, such as the sale of milk and liquor, that haven’t happened yet since the store hasn’t even opened, West said.
Dollar General has been a polarizing issue in town, West said.
"It’s too bad that it’s been so divisive within the town here," West said. "What I found is there is more misinformation than accurate information. People are being misled on many things here. They should be in the know about the legal, procedure, the boards, committee and officer that they will operate under."