By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The developer of a proposed Staples store off Route 7 South has decided to stop pursuing the project through the Vermont Environmental Court process, thus ending a more than one-year effort that was staunchly challenged by some area residents and local businesses.
“We are obviously very pleased and relieved with the outcome,” said Michele Fay, a leader of Middlebury Area Residents for Sustainability (MARS), a citizens’ group that actively opposed the application for a 14,000-square-foot Staples store in The Centre shopping complex.
It was early last year that Middlebury Associates LLC filed its application with the town for the Staples store. The proposal drew fire from some residents who, among other things, voiced concern that the Staples could economically hurt such downtown business as Main Street Stationery; and that the extra customer traffic generated by the new enterprise could create traffic, parking and safety problems in an already busy Centre lot.
The Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) last September approved the proposed Staples office supplies store with several conditions, including that:
• Middlebury Associates LLC submit a final master plan for The Centre showing that it will “be deemed fully built out with the Staples, based on the zoning limitations of traffic capacity, parking and town plan conformance.”
• Access connections be built between The Centre and the neighboring Middlebury Short Stop and the One Dollar Market lots.
• A series of sidewalk connections, entrance upgrades, crosswalks improvements and landscape additions be put in to enhance pedestrian safety and aesthetics within the plaza.
• Traffic signal timing adjustments be made at the Route 7/plaza intersection to ensure extra traffic generated by the Staples store does not exacerbate gridlock on Court Street/Route 7.
Middlebury Associates LLC appealed the DRB decision to the Vermont Environmental Court, arguing the decision “imposes unreasonable conditions upon the appellant, and should be modified.”
Meanwhile, a group of 10 people (some of the MARS members) also filed an appeal with the Environmental Court, in essence arguing the DRB should have rejected the application outright.
A mediation session involving the town and both appellant groups failed to resolve differences.
Then, last week, Middlebury Associates dropped its appeal.
“Middlebury Associates has determined not to go forward with the project and formally withdraws the application,” reads a stipulation filed with the Environmental Court on May 11.
Chris Hunt of Middlebury Associates declined on Thursday to elaborate on the withdrawal of the application. He said he would prepare a statement on the matter this week.
Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said the DRB worked hard to “craft (a decision) that complied with the town plan and zoning.”
Ultimately, he said the parties involved in the appeals could not find common ground for the project to proceed.
“On the one hand, one would want all that hard work to result in something constructive,” Dunnington said. “The fact that nothing happened — I have mixed feelings about that.”
Dunnington hopes that the experience of the Staples application review will help the town improve its procedures in how it handles contested cases.
Meanwhile, Staples opponents last week were hailing the demise of the application.
“Obviously I’m pleased, because it would have been tough competition down the road,” said Greg Tomb, whose family owns Main Street Stationery.
But competition aside, Tomb said he is pleased that Middlebury has staved off what he said was a “big-box image” that might have come had a Staples come to town.
It’s an image that Fay said many area people were committed to battling. She noted that hundreds of people had signed a petition opposing the Staples application. Many of those people, she said, also attended public hearings about the project and contributed money — including the proceeds from the sale of artwork — to bankroll the appeal. Fay placed the group’s legal expenses at around $11,000.
“We couldn’t have done it without lots of support from the community,” Fay said.