Editorial: Route 7 strip? Master planning is the right approach

Plans for further commercial development along Route 7 South in Middlebury initially spark thoughts of alarm, muted by the opportunity to embrace benefits that might come with new jobs, more services and access to goods that could make Middlebury a more vibrant community.
The alarm comes from the prospect of urban sprawl along Route 7.
The last thing Middlebury residents should want is a repeat of the Route 7 nightmare that is Rutland’s commercial strip, which continues to drain its downtown of vitality and contributes to the urban blight with its fast-food joints, an abundance of convenience stores and depleted strip malls. To imagine a similar type of commercial development from the Route 125 turnoff to East Middlebury all the way to stoplight at The Center (where Hannaford grocery, TJ Maxx, McDonalds are located) would be, well, unimaginable.
But can development along this 3-mile stretch of Route 7 be done well? Hopefully so.
And that’s the challenge Middlebury Town Planner Jennifer Murray correctly outlined in a Page 1A story in today’s issue. Murray’s focus is to develop a Route 7 Corridor Master Plan, and we couldn’t agree more that such a plan should be a top priority; and it shouldn’t be limited to just Route 7 South. There’s a critical section of Route 7 North — the intersection at Exchange Street going north to the New Haven town line — that should also be included.
In the southern section of the Route 7 corridor, Middlebury has the opportunity, as Murray suggested, to create pods of commerce, which could also leave open larger sections of agricultural land along the corridor to provide a visual relief to the landscape. That section is also an important route for local bicycle traffic. Extreme care and thoughtfulness about preserving a safe biking throughway should be incorporated in any plans.
We also encourage the use of roundabouts on Route 7, rather than adding more stoplights — that is particularly true the further out of the downtown area one goes. Roundabouts work extremely well to slow traffic, yet keep it moving, rather than the stop-and-go flow caused by traffic lights.
What is somewhat alarming is that the town has already apparently conceded to building a left turn lane at Foote Street as a condition of a building permit for Tractor Supply’s new store just behind the A&W Restaurant. That the town got the business to pay for the $100,000 to $200,000 cost is noteworthy, but the prospect of adding a turn lane off Route 7 there will make it even more difficult to head south from Foote Street — one of the more dangerous intersections in town — and will see drivers trying to dart in front of cars to make the left-hand turn off Route 7 onto Foote Street during high traffic times. Roundabouts may be more expensive to initially construct, but they prevent the hazard of a car completely stopped on a highway with a 50 mph speed limit (think of getting rear-ended at that speed by an inattentive driver).
To the north, the Exchange Street intersection with Route 7 is treacherous and must be fixed as one of the town’s top priorities. A roundabout at that intersection has been discussed with the AOT, though not finalized, and the town should do everything it can to move that project forward.
We would also argue that Exchange Street is the designated area for industrial and some commercial development, and still has ample space to locate enterprises there. Act 250 permits are already in place throughout much of that industrially zoned complex for a reason, which is to concentrate commercial and industrial development in a zone so each business can benefit from the close proximity to each other and to capitalize on the infrastructure already there (paved roads, proximity to the town’s wastewater treatment facility, no problems with highway traffic, and it avoids the negative affects of strip development.)
That’s not to say that commercial development is unwanted on Route 7 South, but the town should move with care and thoughtfulness so as not to create a 3-mile commercial strip that mirrors what Rutland now lives with each day — and to forsake a business district that the town has long tried to develop.

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