The news came as a surprise two weeks ago, when after nearly a year of public hearings in front of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Stop & Shop withdrew a high-profile plan to expand its Vineyard Haven store.
In many ways the 10-month review process followed a normal course for a large development project under review by the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI). The plan began as one proposal and morphed along the way, sometimes in response to questions and criticism from commissioners, planners and citizens. Public hearings were held — eight all together between July 2013 and May 2014. And discussion went back and forth between the applicant and MVC staff members, who were charged with critically reviewing every aspect of the plan from traffic impacts and stormwater runoff to architectural aesthetics and economic impacts on the Island.
But the process was unusual in other respects, complicated by lack of common understanding about the town of Tisbury’s role in approving changes to a town parking lot that directly abuts the store and marked by a series of procedural twists and turns resulting in meeting postponements and public confusion. Though separate discussions between Stop & Shop and town officials were clearly being held, few of those were public. As the MVC hearings neared the end, however Tisbury town officials, including the majority of the selectmen and the planning board, took a strong stand against the project.
Then in early May the plan was abruptly withdrawn. Stop & Shop said at the time the grocery chain remained a “vested part of the community,” but a spokesman contacted by the Gazette this week had no comment about Stop & Shop’s next move.
A review of correspondence between MVC staff and Stop & Shop representatives, including emails and other public documents obtained by the Gazette through a public records request, shows a more complete picture of the process that took place before the commission. As public hearings were being held, a large volume of emails were being logged between Stop & Stop spokesmen and commission staff. The principal spokesman for Stop & Shop was Geoghan Coogan, a Tisbury attorney and former Tisbury selectman who began representing Stop & Shop some 10 months after he stepped down as selectman.
The emails show that while hearings were being held, disagreements were taking place between commission staff and Stop & Shop over the specifics of the plan, how they were being characterized publicly and the review process itself. At one point, four months after the first hearing, Mr. Coogan complained in an email to MVC executive director Mark London that Paul Foley, the commission’s DRI coordinator and a senior staff member, was not being impartial. Mr. Foley was removed from the public hearing portion of the project, and from then on Mr. London handled the coordination of the review himself.
The Gazette has made a separate public records request to the town of Tisbury seeking correspondence, including emails, between town officials and Stop & Shop over the development project. The request was made in early April. The town has not responded fully and the newspaper formally appealed this week to the state Supervisor of Public Records.
Plans to expand the Water street Stop & Shop store began in 2011 as the grocery chain began assembling real estate on the same block as the existing store. A 19th century house at 15 Cromwell Lane and an adjacent building that once housed a Chinese restaurant were bought by Stop & Shop. And the building that formerly housed Midnight Farm was vacated and taken over by the grocery chain, which owns it. A plan emerged to replace the three buildings and the existing store with a large complex that included a grocery store on the second story and an enclosed parking garage on the street level.
In a February 2014 email to the commission, Mr. Coogan said the entire project was estimated at $15 million. “Or as I’d like to say, investment in the town of Tisbury.”
The commission DRI review began in July 2013 with the opening of the first public hearing.
The plan raised problems from the start due to its location in the heart of the most congested area on the Island, across the street from the main Steamship Authority terminal and half a block from the busy Five Corners intersection.
In an interview this week, Mr. London said that from the day the expansion was proposed some people were concerned that the project might jeopardize the Island’s access to the ferry.
“It sort of polarized people and they took positions, saying this is the best project I ever saw or this is going to destroy Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “It’s maybe more nuanced than that.”
Commission staff first discussed the project in an initial meeting with Stop & Shop in December 2012, documents show.
From the beginning, the potential impact on traffic was a major issue.
The Steamship Authority voiced concerns early on, warning that the proposal would compound the traffic situation on Water street and could potentially cause delays in ferry trips. In a letter to the commission, the boat line urged the regional planning agency to enforce traffic mitigation measures. The Vineyard Transit Authority had similar concerns.
The size of the building, and whether it fit with the character of the town, was also a persistent theme.
In emails Mr. Coogan and Mr. Foley disagreed about how to calculate the total square footage. Mr. Coogan contended that the parking garage should not be included in the calculation.
“One point that we are going to stand by is that the parking lot cannot be included in the square footage for the calculation,” Mr. Coogan wrote in an email to Mr. Foley on July 23. He said no other MVC DRI reviews had used parking lots as part of a project’s square footage.
The issue came up again a few months later. “I think we all agree the proposal for parking under a building is a first timer for the Vineyard and that fact alone means there is no real answer,” Mr. Coogan wrote to Mr. Foley on Oct. 3. “There is no precedence for this. So it’s a point of contention. Our problem comes with the suggestion in the staff report that there is a 70 per cent increase. That’s meant to scare the audience and set a tone. That’s where we have a disagreement.”
A second hearing was held in August and a third hearing was postponed until October. Meanwhile the commission sought more information from Stop & Shop about traffic impacts and engaged an independent firm to review those. By then, Stop & Shop had agreed to shorten the building by two feet and move it back two feet from Water street.
Five hours before the October hearing, Mr. Coogan emailed Mr. London to “request that traffic be completely removed from tonight’s presentation and discussion.” He said Stop & Shop had not received the report until 1 p.m. that day and that it differed drastically from Stop & Shop’s report. “I find it patently unfair to proceed with any discussion from either side on traffic tonight,” he wrote.
“I do not feel it necessary to air our frustration over receiving these last minute reports in the public forum. If we have to do so, we have to do so,” Mr. Coogan’s email continued. “But this is now the third time we have received a report the day before or the day of a hearing, without any time to respond. We continue to look like the responsible party for delaying the discussion on traffic.” Mr. London responded that because the commission received Stop & Shop’s traffic report late, the response was correspondingly late. The October hearing went on as scheduled.
At that point Stop & Shop also asked that the town parking lot next door not be addressed by the commission, as the grocery chain planned to take up the issue with the town directly, according to emails obtained by the Gazette.
Mr. Coogan said this week the parking lot dealings were a source of frustration. He said it was “very time consuming and there were a lot of people involved and what we thought was a fairly straight forward process . . . turned into something different.”
The day after the October hearing, Mr. Coogan emailed Mr. London, MVC chairman Fred Hancock and hearing chairman Brian Smith with concerns about Mr. Foley.
“I know this project is unique in both location, design, etc., etc., and handling some certain folks in the audience is tricky, to say the least,” Mr. Coogan wrote. “I do have one major concern though, as we hopefully move forward. In my opinion, Paul Foley is not acting as a staff DRI coordinator in this process, but instead is using his role to clearly show his bias against the project, and attempting to use that position to influence both board and audience members. Each hearing has gotten worse in my opinion. His role is not of audience member, his role is to be an unbiased staff member providing information.
“I truly believe he should be removed from this application. He clearly cannot contain himself.”
Mr. London told the Gazette this week that he made the decision to take Mr. Foley off the public hearing portion of the project in response to complaints. “We wanted to make sure that there was an appearance of impartiality,” Mr. London said. He said he couldn’t think of another time that a staff member had been pulled back from a project review.
In November the public hearing resumed with a fourth session. At that point, Mr. Coogan told the commission that the size of the project had been reduced by about 15 per cent since the initial application. “Going any smaller than this just doesn’t make sense to Stop & Shop,” he said.
At a continued hearing the same month traffic and parking were discussed. Commissioners heard from Stop & Shop’s engineer and one hired by the commission for peer review. There was disagreement over how to calculate the numbers and how much impact the expansion would have on traffic.
Two months later a fifth hearing was held, and it was clear at the beginning that it would not be the final one. Mr. London said offers from the applicant could not be addressed because they were tied to the parking lot, which remained an unresolved issue.
The day before the January hearing, Mr. Coogan emailed about concerns going forward as scheduled. “While we are loathe to push this out any further, we know what is going to come of tomorrow without resolution on the lot, and therefore we think it may be very beneficial not to incite the masses and push off tomorrow night’s hearing until the town has a resolution,” he wrote.
A decision on the parking lot had been expected by the Tisbury selectmen at a Jan. 7 meeting, Mr. Coogan said, but there was no quorum. A meeting scheduled for Jan. 22 was cancelled because of a snowstorm, though emails show that the town tried to go forward with the meeting even though town offices were closed.
His request to postpone, Mr. Coogan noted, “is not due to any delay on S&S part, and we want that to be clear. We are ready to go. We have outstanding issues, affordable housing and points within the offers to debate of course, but we think there is no benefit to having a raucous meeting that will center around an unknown, the parking lot.”
Mr. Hancock, the MVC chairman, replied that discussing offers in a public meeting was the commission’s usual procedure.
The next day, Jan. 23, Mr. Coogan wrote: “I am frankly not sure if S&S will move forward if the hearing is left open while the offers are discussed. If we do, you’ll note our objection to it. We all know well that doing so will leave the commission no choice but to listen to hours more of public comment on the same topics we’ve been discussing since July.
“Further, we are once again going to be subject to the [commissioner] Ned Orleans’ ‘bowl of jelly’ comments, and the [commissioner] Lenny Jason comments about an incomplete presentation, if the lot decision is not nailed down.”
In late winter there was clear frustration on all sides about the length of the proceedings.
On Feb. 6 Mr. London wrote to Mr. Coogan: “As you know, more and more commissioners have publicly expressed concern that this review is taking an inordinately long time. This has been due to the time needed between earlier sessions of the hearing to give Stop & Shop the time to go back to corporate head office for each revision, the length of time to get traffic studies and peer reviews, and more recently because of delays requested by Stop & Shop in relation to the town’s decision of the design of the town parking lot.”
Mr. Coogan defended his role. “Stop and Shop has been prepared to move forward with completion of this project for months now,” he responded. He said Stop & Shop wanted to wait until a complete agreement with the town before coming back to the MVC. “Every time we come back without being 100 per cent complete, we look like we are not ready, and undoubtedly the public, and the commissioners, ask questions about items we have already discussed ad nauseam.
“We cannot allow commissioners and the public to be told that we are the source of the delays,” he wrote.
Meanwhile in February and March the stage shifted to the town of Tisbury where a specially-appointed task force held a series of meetings to hash out issues around the municipal parking lot.
By the time the commission hearing resumed on March 21, commissioners heard that town selectmen had signed off on the new parking lot plan, but Mr. Coogan said at the meeting there was a new wrinkle — a letter from the town that he received out of the blue which would affect what Stop & Shop could offer as mitigation for the project. The Gazette has not been able to obtain a copy of that letter.
A short time later, Tisbury selectmen announced they had reached agreement with Stop & Shop on a plan. When the draft agreement was disclosed, however, it went considerably beyond the parking lot issue, including $1.16 million in one-time and long-term donations that Stop & Shop had apparently agreed to make. At least one commissioner questioned whether the agreement undermined the commission process.
The agreement was never signed by the Tisbury selectmen, and at the final MVC hearing on May 1 two of the three selectmen and four of the five members of the town planning board took strong positions against the plan.
Though Mr. Coogan said Stop & Shop reached the agreement at the commission’s suggestion, he added: “You can take that piece of paper and rip it up.”
Seven days later, as the commission prepared to close the written record, Stop & Shop withdrew the application, bringing the 10-month process to a sudden end.
Mr. Coogan emailed Mr. London that morning saying he would be sending over a statement. “The statement will be short and sweet but the underlying point is that S&S is not so much concerned with a yes or no vote, but in their mind the amount of concern over the project means they should go back to the drawing board and try if they can, to make the project a bit smaller,” he wrote. “Can’t say that can be done, but they are willing to try. We think it’s best then to simply ask for the withdrawal, and let us do our best to bring this back in another form.
“We hope the MVC understands we do not believe this has been a waste of time, we think the opposite. It has been a process that we all learned a ton from, and hopefully will result in another application.”
Mr. Coogan reflected on the process by telephone on Thursday this week. “I would say it was eventful,” he said. “It certainly didn’t go according to plan but with a major project with many moving parts, we sort of knew that going into it.”
Looking forward, he said Stop & Shop would revisit the plans, look at the comments that were made, and “they ultimately need to decide if they can put those back into a new plan that would address some of those issues that is also financially feasible.”
It is unclear how Stop & Shop will proceed, but Mr. Coogan said he hoped to announce the next step soon.
Reached Thursday morning, Greg O’Brien, a spokesman for the supermarket chain, declined to elaborate on the withdrawal.
“There’s nothing at the moment to say beyond our earlier statement,” he said.
In an interview at the commission offices this week, Mr. London said he was surprised. “I don’t know why they withdrew or what their plans are so I don’t want to speculate on their motivations or the outcome,” he said. “I have no idea what is going to happen.”
He defended the role of the commission. “It is very rare that the commission denies a project, most of the work the commission does is to improve projects because an applicant typically when they design a project, they are designing it from their point of view. They are not necessarily focused on the various impacts of the community,” he said.
He said testimony from public officials at the last public hearing may have played a role in the decision to withdraw. “At the last hearing, when the planning board and two of the three selectmen recommended that it be denied, I am sure it gave them pause,” Mr. London said.
While he said projects this large and complex typically require prolonged review, it was unusual that such a project would be withdrawn so late in the process.
If Stop & Shop decides to go forward with revised plans, they would begin the entire review process again, starting with informal meetings with staff members and a pre-hearing review at the commission’s land use planning committee.
But Mr. London said resubmissions typically proceed more quickly than before.
“Presumably, it goes a lot faster the second time around,” he said.