By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) on Monday gave its final, conditional approval to a proposed Staples store in The Centre/Hannaford shopping plaza off Route 7 South.
Developers, however, will have much work to do if they are to proceed with their plans for the 14,737-square-foot office supplies store. The 24-page page decision calls for Middlebury Associates LLC, to, among other things:
• Submit a final planned unit development master plan showing that The Centre/Hannaford plaza will “be deemed fully built out with the Staples, based on the zoning limitations of traffic capacity, parking and town plan conformance.”
That limitation, according to the final decision, encompasses the former Middlebury Car Wash property at the southern end of The Centre, a site recently acquired by Middlebury Associates, LLC (aka Myron Hunt Inc.) and previously slated for a Starbucks. Starbucks withdrew its Middlebury plans earlier this year, amid a company-wide reorganization.
The DRB decision states that the former “car wash site asphalt must be reduced to accommodate only an egress drive for one-way exiting southbound traffic, while the remainder of the car wash site shall be restored to green space with grass, shrubs and tree plantings.”
• Build access connections between The Centre and the neighboring Middlebury Short Stop and former Dollar Market. The decision notes that developers agreed to those connections — designed to improve traffic flow and circulation into, and out of, the shopping plaza — on April 27, 2004, as part of the approval for the new National Bank of Middlebury building. Those connections have not been built.
• Carry out a series of sidewalk connections, entrance upgrades, crosswalks improvements and landscape additions to enhance pedestrian safety and aesthetics within the plaza.
• Make traffic signal timing adjustments at the Route 7 South/plaza intersection to ensure extra traffic generated by the Staples store does not exacerbate gridlock on Court Street/Route 7.
The Staples application was one of the more controversial projects to come before the town in recent years. Some of the many citizens who packed public hearings about the project took issue not only with traffic/safety concerns associated with the project, but also the potential for a major, national corporate entity like Staples to undercut smaller locally owned businesses in Middlebury’s downtown.
The DRB determined, however, that zoning could not be used to regulate retail competition. The panel also arrived at the conclusion that the proposed Staples did not constitute a “big box store”; would not be constructed using franchise-style architecture; and would encompass far less square footage than the 50,000-square-foot limit prescribed by current town zoning rules.
“We did everything we could to make our decision constructive,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. “The board hopes (this decision) could be accepted.”
Chris Hunt of Middlebury Associates LLC is now determining whether his company can proceed with the project under the DRB’s conditions.
“As usual, these decisions are so long and contain so much that it is almost impossible to digest in one sitting,” Hunt said during a phone interview Wednesday morning.
But based on his initial reading of the decision, Hunt said he believes the conditions the DRB is imposing are too substantial for what he considers to be a fairly modest project.
“As far as the DRB is concerned, they have construed the addition of a 15,000-square-foot building as a major redevelopment of the shopping center,” Hunt said. “From our perspective, it is a small change to it.”
As a point of comparison, the Hannaford grocery store in the plaza is 48,000 square feet.
Hunt added Middlebury Associates LLC was prepared to make improvements to The Centre plaza, but had not envisioned as many as have been prescribed in the DRB decision.
“We are trying to come to terms with whether it is even feasible to proceed (with the Staples project), at this point,” Hunt said.
Meanwhile, a citizens’ group that has been lobbying against the proposed Staples is also processing the lengthy DRB decision.
“We just found out about the final decision, and will need a chance to meet as a group to discuss our reactions,” said Michele Fay, a leader of the group.
Interested parties who are dissatisfied with the DRB decision have 30 days in which to lodge an appeal with the Vermont Environmental Court.