The Middlebury selectboard’s decision to remove language in the town plan that caps retail stores at 50,000 square feet may be treading on a more slippery slope than they think. The board made the decision in a 4-1 vote Tuesday night, maintaining that the town is buying a little room to discuss the issue, which can later be confirmed within its zoning regulations.
That is not always so. A town’s policies as adopted in the town plan provide the over-arching perspective that is often cited in court cases when deciding issues surrounding prospective developments, rather than citing the more specific measures adopted in the zoning ordinances. That is precisely why the language was inserted into the town plan nine years ago, after considerable discussion and controversy. To suddenly decide that discussion was moot and should be amended — against action already taken by the planning commission — is a radical step to take with comparatively little public discussion.
It’s not that the town can’t rewrite the language on this topic forcefully enough to achieve its new objective, but it should not be so cavalier as to assume board members can simply remove this important cap from the plan and assume what they will write weeks from now in the zoning regulations will cover all bases. It would be far better to consult with the town attorney, town planner and planning commission and reopen this issue to public discussion before making what could be a drastic change in the town plan.
That said, there is a good argument to be made for trying to attract an anchor store of an appropriate scale, which could be in the 50,000-square-foot range, give or take a few thousand square feet. And it may make sense to amend the town plan to allow for greater flexibility as long as the scale is appropriate to the marketplace. If that is the objective, the issue is significant enough to area merchants and consumers to want a fuller hearing. Because the town plan is adopted by the selectboard and not Middlebury voters, there is absolutely no reason to rush the proposed plan through and every reason in the world to vet it as fully as need be.
Angelo S. Lynn