By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Developers of a proposed Staples store off Route 7 South will have to make their project less of a potential contributor to area traffic congestion and more in conformance with Middlebury’s town plan if it is to advance further through the community’s permitting process.
The Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) issued those and other findings on Tuesday in its preliminary review of a 14,737-square-foot Staples store that Myron Hunt Inc. wants to build next to the Hannaford Supermarket portion of The Centre shopping plaza.
“This is not a final decision,” Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington stressed of the DRB report. “It identifies things that need to happen if the project is going to proceed. It lays out the process to take the project to the next step.”
The next steps for Myron Hunt Inc., according to the DRB report, will be to:
• Submit a master plan and narrative, showing — among other things — how traffic circulating in an around the project site will not only affect The Centre shopping plaza, but adjacent properties across Route 7 and on Middle Road.
• Demonstrate how the project can conform to specific provisions of the Middlebury town plan. For example, the town plan already identifies the stretch of Court Street/Route 7 from Creek Road to Boardman Street as an “area … not appropriate for new or expanded large-scale shopping mall development, similar to the existing Hannaford Plaza to the south.”
• Adhere to an existing agreement that The Centre would work with adjoining property owners (the Dollar Market, and the Mobil station, owned by Jolley Associates) to link their respective parking lots to improve traffic flow.
• Demonstrate the traffic signal at the intersection of The Centre and Route 7 South has been re-timed to provide a level of service “C” or better, at all times, for Route 7 through traffic. A traffic report commissioned by Myron Hunt Inc. projected southbound through-traffic operating at an inferior level of service “D” — even after a re-timing improvement — according to DRB officials.
Myron Hunt Inc. officials said they could offer few comments when contacted on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re still digesting the decision,” said Chris Hunt, a partner in Myron Hunt Inc. “We’re just trying to find out what is being said here. We are trying to dial in on what we need to address.”
What the developers won’t need to address further, according to Tuesday’s DRB report, is whether the Staples store could run afoul of a town plan mandate that new or expanded commercial or institutional projects located outside the core village not have an “undue adverse impact on the cultural and economic vitality of the downtown.”
An economic impact analysis provided to the DRB by Myron Hunt Inc. indicated the new Staples store would create 15 to 20 new jobs, with a payroll of approximately $475,000; would not cause “any measurable change in school property taxes”; and would “generate more municipal tax revenues than municipal service costs.”
Several people who spoke at DRB hearings about the Staples application argued the new store would pose a major corporate threat to some small, homegrown businesses in the downtown that offered similar products — especially Main Street Stationery. More than 1,000 people signed a petition opposing the Staples application, in part over concern about the large, corporate nature of the store.
But the DRB argued the town plan language regarding the downtown could not be used as means of regulating competition among individual businesses.
“The DRB considered the context of the project and potential harms and is unable to conclude from any clear evidence that the Staples would significantly affect downtown image, ambiance or affect cultural activities downtown,” the board’s report said. “The DRB was also unable to find evidence that the project would significantly draw people out of downtown, cause significant secondary growth or have an undue adverse impact on the town as a whole.”
Michelle Fay, an organizer of the petition against Staples, disagreed with the DRB’s findings related to impact on village businesses.
“I do think it will have an impact on the economic vitality of the downtown,” Fay said, alluding to studies — including some developed by the Preservation Trust Of Vermont — relating to Vermont’s homegrown economy and how that economy can be negatively affected by chain stores that export their profits to other states.
Fay said she and other opponents of the Staples plan would continue to turn out at future hearings to voice their concerns about the potential impact of the proposal on the downtown economy.
She noted some signers of the anti-Staples petition have formed a group called Middlebury Area Residents for Sustainability (MARS) to mobilize their efforts.