By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — At the forefront of a public hearing last Tuesday on proposed changes in zoning and subdivision regulations was a hot button topic for Middlebury residents: plans to restrict so-called “big box” development in all of the town’s zoning districts.
The hearing was the latest step in a major update of Middlebury zoning and subdivision regulations, which have been in the works for several years. Selectmen must approve the current draft regulations or send them back to the planning commission with recommended changes.
Many residents at the well-attended selectboard meeting commended the Middlebury Planning Commission, which drafted zoning regulation revisions that make permanent the interim zoning ban on building mega-stores enacted two years ago. The interim ban, which has expired, prohibited any single retail store larger than 50,000 square feet in all Middlebury zoning districts.
Some critics of “formula retail” and big box businesses, fearing the impact those national franchises could have on Middlebury’s character and economy, called for even stronger restrictions to keep such businesses from locating here.
“Now there is a need for, I think, a next step along this same way,” said Bill McKibben, a Ripton resident and environmental writer. “Square footage is always going to be a crude measure.”
Ripton resident Michele Fay agreed.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the size of a … store,” Fay said. “It has more to do with the money staying within the local economy and people in the community benefiting from that.”
McKibben, along with other area residents, suggested the Planning Commission and selectboard turn a critical eye on even small and medium-size franchise store developments — such as Starbucks, which considered building in Middlebury last year.
“The work that begins with the defense against the crudest and largest of these aggressive enterprises — big box stores — needs to continue, I think, with probably a more supple and subtle set of defenses that will allow us in this county to remain relatively free of the kind of development that plagued most other communities in this country,” said McKibben.
Planning Commission chair John Barstow agreed that the “50,000-square-foot limit is blunt” — but town planners said that they are unlikely to include stronger language in this revision of the zoning and subdivision regulations, arguing that such changes would require a far more extensive process of town debate.
“I think we need to have this discussion,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo. “I’m wondering how germane it is to the zoning items.”
Town Planner and Zoning Administrator Fred Dunnington said after the meeting that he believes the heightened interest in stricter zoning regulations followed on heels of news that the Staples development application had been given tentative approval with conditions. But, he pointed out, Middlebury is home to 30 businesses with national affiliations — some of which are locally owned businesses with franchise names.
“Generally speaking,” Dunnington said, “zoning is not thought of as a tool that ought to be used in business regulation. We like the idea in America of free enterprise.”
The proposed changes from some members of the public at Tuesday’s meeting represent a “controversial idea,” and one “complex to implement,” he said. “So that’s going to take more time to investigate and decide if that’s what we really want to do with the community.”
But opponents of franchise development nonetheless called for swift action from town planners — arguing, in McKibben’s case, that America is nearing the end of an era in which formula development makes sense. These business models were designed in an era of cheap fossil fuels, he said, that is rapidly drawing to a close. As fuel prices skyrocket, these business models, he argued, make less and less sense.
“It would be a great shame to see our reasonably well-defended downtown undercut at the very end of that era by development under 50,000 square feet but triggering the same kind of alarm among many people in this community,” McKibben said.
And, plans to push off discussion of stricter development regulations frustrated some residents on hand for the meeting.
“I just don’t feel like there are any tools in either the town plan or the ordinance to address our concerns about the continuation of that development,” said a Ripton resident on hand for the meeting.
The other topic raised in detail at Tuesday’s meeting was the question of gravel extraction, as some residents called to increase the distance from property lines at which gravel, sand and soil is allowed to be removed.
The current draft of the zoning regulations states that, in the case of gravel removal, an undisturbed buffer must be maintained around all property lines, with a minimum buffer of 50 feet from the property line, 200 feet from an existing dwelling and 100 feet from an existing public right-of-way.
On hand for the discussion were East Middlebury resident Susan Shashok and J.P. Carrara & Sons employee Bill Townsend, who have both played central roles in an ongoing debate about a proposed gravel extraction operation in East Middlebury.
Carrara is phasing out gravel extraction at its current 23.4-acre pit in East Middlebury, located to the immediate east of School House Hill Road. The company is seeking approval from the Development Review Board for the new development, but has met with opposition from East Middlebury residents, including Shashok.
Shashok recommended that the new zoning regulations explicitly call for input from neighbors to proposed extraction projects. She also suggested that the regulation be changed to require a minimum 100-foot buffer from property lines.
Selectboard Chairman John Tenny said he recognized in the debate a “spirit of compromise” — but Dunnington remained skeptical.
The “devil is in the details,” said Dunnington. He said that an ideal regulation would allow for common sense, some hard-and-fast numbers and the judgment of development review board officials.
“The system of government needs to provide good guidance and reasonable standards,” he said, “and not simply be arbitrary and empowering of particular neighbors.”
He hoped that the final language in the regulations includes “both a performance standard involving some board discretion and judgment, and a number default for a minimum.”
THE PLANNING PROCESS
The regulations at hand in Tuesday’s discussion, according to Dunnington, reflect years of sporadic work on Middlebury’s zoning rules, and represent the first extensive changes to the these rules since 1995.
In addition to merging the zoning and subdivision regulations — which previously were outlined in separate documents — the updated regulations bring the zoning rules into conformance with the town plan that Middlebury adopted in 2007.
The document reflects citizen input gathered during several public hearings held by the Planning Commission last winter. The revised regulations were compiled and presented to the selectboard in February — but the selectboard, swamped with spring agenda items that included plans for the proposed Cross Street bridge, was not able to get the proposed regulations onto its agenda until this month.
Even so, Dunnington said, the selectboard has already devoted several working meetings to reviewing the new regulations. Once the gravel extraction question is decided, Dunnington predicted that the document will see few if any further changes.
“We would like to bring to closure the work we began years ago,” he said.
Other noteworthy provisions in the new zoning regulations include:
• Additional protection for rivers, streams, wetlands, wildlife habitat and agricultural land, as well as conservation design for subdivision and new developments.
• Policies to encourage energy conservation and efficiency in developments.
• Attention to the needs of transit and pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
• Stormwater management plans consistent with state regulations.
• The establishment of an official map for use in development review.
• Adjustment of land use density regulations that provide for downtown development sites, “infill” in medium density residential areas in East Middlebury and less density and development in agricultural and rural zones.
In warning the proposed changes at Tuesday’s hearing, selectboard Chairman Tenny explained, the town now falls under a system of “dual regulations.” Until the new regulations are adopted, he said, any new applications for development will be considered under both sets of guidelines, and decisions will be made using the stricter regulations.
“There’s not a question of coverage here, and there shouldn’t be a feeling that there’s an urgency at stake in adopting something in haste if it’s felt that there needs to be some work done,” Tenny said.
Dunnington will provide a complete summary of residents’ concerns and comments on the new regulations at the next selectboard meeting devoted to the zoning discussion on Sept. 9. Officials didn’t know when they would vote on whether or not to adopt the new regulations.