Editorial: Middlebury retail cap has contradictions

Here are a trio of seeming contradictions over whether to write into the Middlebury Town Plan a 50,000-square-foot retail cap: it would seemingly protect existing retail businesses, but it might not; 50,000 square feet is either too large or perhaps too small; and the cap as written in the town zoning ordinances is either effective, or it isn’t.
For a policy the town has had in place since the last town plan was approved in 2005, that’s a long time to live with such uncertainties. Or perhaps the current discussion is less about where that particular protection resides (in the town plan or in the zoning ordinances or both) and more about the virtues of the 50,000-square-foot cap.
Both arguments are pertinent. Here’s why: The current town plan as proposed has a specific statement that says all town development measures should be governed by the town’s zoning ordinances. Those zoning ordinances have a specific provision that places a 50,000-square-foot cap on a single retail entity within the town. Neither the selectboard nor the planning commission have advocated repealing the cap in the zoning ordinances; rather, the proposal by the planning commission was to also put the language in the town plan. Their thinking was that it would make it more foolproof to have that statement repeated in the town’s two planning and zoning documents. The selectboard has proposed taking the language out of the town plan, but leaving it in the zoning.
What’s interesting is that while some selectboard members think the town is protected with the language in the zoning ordinances, they don’t want it in the town plan because it sets a “firm number” in what they consider a more holistic and visionary statement. It is also true that zoning ordinances are more easily changed than is the town plan. Amendments can be made to zoning ordinances at any time, while the town plan is reviewed only once each five years.
Surely, then, putting the language in the town plan as well as in the zoning is a stronger statement than just leaving it in the zoning ordinances. The trade-off is the weaker statement allows more flexibility.
But is 50,000 the right number?
In square-footage terms, that’s about the size of the Hannaford supermarket. That’s substantial, but it’s not the 150,000-square-foot superstores the Wal-Marts of the world have been building for the past 15-20 years. The smaller model, in fact, might work well for a community of Middlebury’s size and not overwhelm the market. But what if such a company wanted a store of 60,000 square feet, instead of 50,000? Should the 50,000 be writ in stone or should there be some room for negotiation?
We are told that the pressure to get Wal-Mart or Target or Kohl’s or any other big box department store to come up with a business plan built around a scale-appropriate store of 50,000 square feet has been in the works. No promises have been made that it will happen, but it could be a feasible way for giant retailers to spread their tentacles into far more outlets throughout the country without engendering the animosity — and costly legal battles — of the targeted communities.
To that end, Middlebury would be wise to engage in a conversation that considers what size, if any, is small enough to be allowed and not prove a detriment to the community.
Readers should also know that the jury is out on that question: Some think that any big-box store of any size (as long as it is corporately owned by out-of-towners who operate it as one in a chain) would present unfair competition to local merchants and cause some local businesses to shut their doors. Others think that providing a larger retail department store would keep local shoppers from driving out of town to Rutland or Burlington and therefore bring more trade to the Middlebury area.
Just why would a scale-appropriate, big-box store draw more business to local retailers? In two words: increased traffic.
The thinking is that a 50,000-square-foot Target, for example, would provide enough goods at a price-point to keep locals from shopping out of town. That, in turn, would prompt increased sales across the local spectrum.
The slippery slope within this argument is that if one chain store came up with a 50,000-square-foot model, why wouldn’t their competitors follow? And if Middlebury, or any other town, accepts one 50,000-square-foot store, wouldn’t it have to accept each one that applied within the same parameters? If Wal-Mart does it first, would Target follow, and then Home Depot? And it’s a fact that these stores like to locate in similar towns, in close proximity, because one crowd feeds off the other.
The question is whether any one 50,000-square-foot retail store would overwhelm the existing retail community or strengthen it? And, then, what would a second or third store do, and how could the town respond effectively?
Those are a few of the questions the town needs to address, and the Better Middlebury Partnership (the Middlebury business group) is ready to help lead that discussion. One initial focus is to address what retail items are in demand but not available in the community; then ask if it would be better for existing retailers to try to provide those items or bring in a new store?
As for the short-term, as long as the town plan specifically states that it defers to the zoning ordinances in all matters of development, we think the validity of the language written in the zoning can stand the test of time for another five years, while we discuss the more important issue of filling the retail needs of the community.

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