MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday got another earful from area residents about the newly revised town plan, specifically about whether the document should include language limiting retail store size to 50,000 square feet.
The planning commission has recommended such language to mirror a 50,000-square-foot cap that has been included in Middlebury’s zoning ordinances since 2005.
But a majority of the selectboard has balked at such a move, arguing that the town’s zoning ordinance can provide adequate protection against mega-retail proposals while the community debates the wisdom of a 50,000-square-foot cap and whether that limit should be expanded, lowered, or possibly softened for large stores that fit the community’s needs and character.
Tuesday featured the board’s second public hearing on the town plan, a hefty document laying out the town’s growth priorities as well as an inventory of Middlebury’s many physical and intangible assets. The planning commission has spent several years revising the document, making a number of changes — many of them simply tweaking language. But the board’s decision not to endorse town plan language for a 50,000-square-foot cap on retail has spurred a petition and debate among locals and residents of neighboring towns; some believe the absence of such language will make the town more vulnerable to big-box store proposals, while others say a cap will continue to deprive local shoppers of goods they now have to get at stores in Rutland and Chittenden counties.
Ripton resident Michele Fay on Tuesday presented the board with a petition signed by 154 Middlebury residents calling for “retention of the 50,000-square-foot limit on retail establishments in the Middlebury town zoning and the planning commission-proposed plan. We believe that the retention of this building size limit will help to promote and sustain a prosperous local retail market in Middlebury.”
Fay said she circulated the petition to “show that there are many, many people who are concerned about this.”
Among them was Middlebury resident Ross Conrad, who said he was concerned about the potential for big stores to overwhelm the smaller ones in Middlebury.
“They tend to draw out business from the downtown area when they are outside of the downtown” Conrad said. “Because they are so big, it is an uneven playing field.
“If we really want to respect our businesses that we have … we won’t allow some huge business to come in that’s going to be on a different playing field and put them out of business, basically, and potentially make our downtown a ghost town,” he said.
Mike Palmer, a local businessman, warned of the potential impact of sending mixed messages to large-scale stores.
“I believe this is a momentous decision that is potentially more important than the in-town bridge was, because of its long-term impact on the community,” Palmer said. He urged the selectboard to get “expert legal advice” on the extent of protection afforded by the zoning ordinances against large-scale stores.
“I am concerned that the consequences of this decision… could potentially change the character of Middlebury permanently,” he said. He urged the town to consider ways of providing affordable, basic goods to people locally without green lighting a large-scale store.
Resident Kathy Jones said she chose to move to Middlebury because of the “unique character” of its downtown. She said she is able to shop locally for the things she needs, and does not believe the town needs to open itself up to an application from a large-scale store.
“I believe I can find affordable things in town,” Jones said. “I can buy sustainably grown, cotton organic shirts for $30, and in Burlington I can’t find a shirt for under $70.”
She added she was surprised that the board was still debating the question given what she said has been a large public outcry in favor of including the 50,000-square-foot cap in the town plan.
“I am wondering where the democratic process is, here” she said.
Former Middlebury resident Bill Roper also urged the town to reference the 50,000-square-foot cap in its town plan. Roper is former director of the Orton Family Foundation — which assists in community planning — and was an attorney who helped fight Wal-Mart’s proposed store in St. Albans in 1997.
“It is extremely hard for a town to say ‘no’ when business and jobs are an issue,” Roper said. “Yet it is imperative at certain times that a town say ‘no’ and draw some parameters around what it considers appropriate and what it considers inappropriate.”
Roper said the town has an opportunity to say “yes” to its vision for development, by emphasizing a 50,000-square-foot cap in its town plan.
“That cap is not anti-growth; it is pro-growth, at a size that is compatible and appropriate for Middlebury,” Roper said.
But others weren’t sold on the need for a 50,000-square-foot retail store limit in the town plan.
Middlebury resident John Duclos harkened back around 25 years ago when the downtown boasted two department stores (Abram’s and Lazarus), two drug stores and a grocer.
“Main Street provided all of our parents’ needs to take care of their families,” Duclos said. “Nobody got in their car and drove to Williston or Rutland or Ticonderoga.”
But those stores have disappeared, he said, forcing people to travel long distances for some items.
“Middlebury is not providing (the complete shopping experience) anymore,” he said.
Duclos noted the town has approved two retirement communities and housing developments that have necessitated upgrades in Middlebury’s infrastructure. He said the town needs more businesses to generate tax revenues to help pay for that infrastructure and town services.
“I realize the small shops are wonderful, but we need to bring that Williston money back into town,” Duclos said.
He joined others at Tuesday’s meeting who said that a store like Wal-Mart would not target the Middlebury area because of its market size and zoning laws that limit development to a community friendly scale.
Kevin Newton owns several rental properties on Route 7 occupied by such businesses as Vermont Field Sports and Taylor Rental.
“I’m in favor of leaving the 50,000 out of the town plan,” Newton said. “I don’t think any of us in Middlebury want the big-box stores. But I’m not sure if 50,000 square feet is too restrictive or not restrictive enough to allow a department store that will fulfill our needs and eliminate a lot of traffic on the roads that go to all sorts of other towns and cities to do shopping. We need to figure out how to keep our customers local.”
Ben Wilson, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), noted the organization’s board voted 17-1 in favor of the selectboard’s approach to the town plan.
“Since Ames’s closure it has become undeniably clear that the current composition of businesses in the greater Middlebury community does not serve all of the retail segments that Ames once did,” reads a statement from the BMP. “How our community’s retail needs are to be met is an important question — one that merits significant reflection and discussion. But this debate has not yet occurred. Whether our needs are best served by a community-cooperative department store, a national chain store, or the status quo remains to be determined. This issue must be the subject of a comprehensive and thoughtful dialog by our entire community. The BMP is prepared to partner with the town to facilitate these important discussions over the coming year.
“Because these discussions have not yet occurred, the BMP supports the selectboard’s decision to maintain the status quo, and avoid any reference to specific size limitations in the town plan, while keeping it in the zoning,” the statement continues. “Simply put, amending the town plan without holding a comprehensive discussion would be a disservice to the democratic process and our community.”
Individual selectboard members were asked where they stand on including the 50,000-square-foot retail store cap in the town plan. Selectman Craig Bingham and Selectwoman Susan Shasok said they both supported inserting the language.
Selectman Nick Artim said he believes the subject needs more discussion, in part based on comments he said he has received from people unable to attend the public hearings, as well as from people he said are uncomfortable about speaking in public. Those people, according to Artim, have told him they are not interested in large “super-centers”; a new “basic necessities” store is needed to fill the gap left by Ames Department Store more than a decade ago; elderly people can’t drive long distances to get the clothing they need; there is no place to get a suitcase; people returning from work at 6:30 p.m. find most of the stores closed; the round-trip drive to Burlington costs $20, but that’s part of the price you pay to get the clothes you need.
“Some of the businesses I’ve talked to aren’t enthusiastic about the possibility of a (larger store), but I can’t say that’s true for all,” Artim said. “Some merchants have said, ‘We have products that the larger retailers don’t carry; we think that if there’s a major retailer, more shoppers would be staying in Middlebury, which would help us.’”
Artim said the calls he’s received on the subject have been running “about 20-1 in favor of a local department store.”
He said he is not sure that the 50,000-square-foot cap is the right number and is therefore reluctant to support such language in the town plan.
“I do believe that the 50,000 square feet and hard numbers belong in the zoning ordinance,” Artim said, adding “it’s time for a discussion to see if 50,000 square feet is the right number.”
Selectman Victor Nuovo said the board looks forward to having a dialog with the community.
“We all love this town and want to make it as perfect as we can make it,” he said. “We need to have meetings, and a lot of them, that involve people with all sorts of opinions to express those opinions.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.