Middlebury eyes plan for growth on Route 7

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Planning Commission is preparing to study a key stretch of Route 7 South in an effort to give local officials, residents and property owners a better sense of how that area could be developed in a way that would attract economic development without creating sprawl.
Middlebury Town Planner Jennifer Murray is calling it a “Route 7 corridor master plan,” which will focus on a specific portion of that major, north-south artery.
The Route 7 area under scrutiny stretches from the so-called Sabourin property (across from Denecker Chevrolet at the southern gateway of the village), to the junction of East Main Street (Route 125). It’s a swath that’s already home to some major business properties, including several vehicle dealerships, the former Standard Register building and other, smaller enterprises. Local planners recognize its allure as prime real estate for other entrepreneurs who might want to launch new businesses outside of Middlebury Village in the future.
“We know we have to develop along Route 7, but we have to do it in a way that isn’t sprawl,” Murray said.
To that end, the commission will apply for grants to hire a consultant to study the area’s development potential and how future growth could dovetail the town’s planning priorities.
“The idea is we want to balance the interests of business owners who need to and want to continue to thrive there, with the needs of the community to not have the appearance of sprawl in that corridor,” Murray said. “I think there’s a way to find a common ground with proper planning in the area.”
The study is in part being triggered by a recent proposal by Primax Properties to develop a 19,113-square-foot Tractor Supply retail store off Foote Street, on a 6.5-acre parcel located behind the A&W Restaurant. The plan has already earned a local permit through the Middlebury Development Review Board, but has hit a snag during its Act 250 review. The Act 250 review panel analyzed the current number of left-hand turns off Route 7 in the project area and determined the additional Tractor Supply traffic would drive the need for a new, left-turn lane to access the store — at Primax’s expense.
Estimated cost of installing that new lane, according to Murray, is $100,000 to $200,000, a price she said Primax appears willing to pay.
But that won’t always be the case, officials noted.
“We don’t often get a developer coming along who’s able to afford that,” Murray said.
Primax leaders were shocked by the left-turn lane requirement, and local planners believe a Route 7 South corridor study could, in part, give future developers a more reliable preview of potential infrastructure mandates their building projects might trigger based on traffic counts and related stress on intersections.
Murray acknowledged there’s a way to get the state to pay for transportation-related improvements — through a list of county priority projects maintained by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC).
“Not all that traffic going down Route 7 is local traffic,” Murray said. “A lot of it is traffic going to other parts of the state. So the cost of construction improvements on Route 7 should theoretically be borne by the state, not by developers coming in to help our local economy.”
But with a limited state capital improvement budget, it can take years for individual projects to move from the ACRPC wish list to construction. And that’s often too long for landowners and developers who want to build.
A master plan could at least help get transportation project ideas onto the ACRPC list more quickly, according to Murray.
“I know intuitively a lot of people think we need a light at (the intersection of Route 7 South) and Boardman Street, but let’s get numbers that prove that,” she said. “Let’s get a project to regional planning … and have them help us get it on a state list, and maybe the state can get around to it before it becomes something that thwarts local development.”
This isn’t the first time the planning commission has given special attention to the Route 7 South area. Murray pointed to a map that her predecessor, Fred Dunnington, drew up in 1998. That map depicts three possible development “nodes” along the same stretch outside Middlebury village. Each node includes such familiar businesses as Rosie’s Restaurant, Foster Motors, Bread Loaf Corp. and Denecker Chevrolet. The three nodes are separated by clusters of trees and other natural buffers.
While the commission won’t simply adopt Dunnington’s 20-year-old map, the document will provide some helpful background for the new Route 7 corridor study, according to Murray.
Middlebury Planning Commission Chairperson Barbara Saunders fully supports the idea of a Route 7 South master plan. She called the Tractor Supply Act 250 decision a “wakeup call,” and believes a master plan could pave for the way for “logical development that doesn’t lead to sprawl.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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