Middlebury Residents Debate Language of Town Plan

By Devin MacDonald

The town of Middlebury has always been known for its small, homegrown feel. This atmosphere has been cultivated over the years by the many locally owned businesses that bring quality goods to Addison County.

Until 2002, however, those looking for the convenience of bulk shopping had the option of Ames, a large department store that operated where Hannaford’s now reigns in a plaza entering the town on Route 7. When the store went out of business at the beginning of the millennium, however, many citizens struggled finding a place to purchase their goods at an affordable price without having to drive to Burlington, Rutland or Fort Ticonderoga.

As a result of the loss of Ames and the boom of Wal-Mart and other such stores, concerns have arisen in Middlebury about the possibility of big-box stores moving in and ruining the atmosphere of the town. The situation has become more and more complicated as citizens voice their opinions surrounding the restriction of retail store size in Middlebury.

Ben Wilson, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership and assistant director of prospect research at the College, has been invested in this issue and underlines the importance of understanding the background story.

“In 2005, the Middlebury Business Association got a petition together to amend the zoning,” said Wilson. “They got over 1,100 signatures to put a 50,000 square-foot limit in the zoning.”

At that point in time, the zoning was indeed amended and has been enforced ever since. Ames was 50,000 square-feet, as is the current Hannaford’s store. The Better Middlebury Partnership was acting on a concern born from the eruption of super-stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.

The issue has arisen again because the same language used in zoning has been applied to drafts of the new town plan, created once every five years. The plan differs from the zoning in that once approved, the town plan becomes law. The zoning can never exceed it – it acts as a ceiling that would ensure that retail stores would be restricted to a reasonable size, regardless of any changes made to zoning policy in the future.

This language was consequently removed because citizens present at initial public hearings did not want the restriction in the document.

“This is nuanced in the sense that people have different reasons for not wanting it in,” said Wilson. “It wasn’t a block of people who want one thing or another; people have all different reasons for arguing against it.”

Reasons for being against the restriction ranged from not wanting to seem anti-business, to believing the town plan should be a visionary document and not include something already taken care of in zoning, to wanting to have large superstores in the area.

The select board, hearing these complaints, took out the provision. The subsequent drafts of the town plan have not included the 50,000 square-foot bar. However, the issue is still pertinent because of the pushback against removing such language. There are fears amongst the other faction of citizens that without the restriction in the town plan, a superstore could move in and change the feel of Middlebury, create unfair competition for smaller stores, and eliminate the intimate and quaint feel of the town.

Robin Scheu, Executive Director of Addison County Economic Development Corporation and Middlebury resident, understands the predicament and the need to come to a solution that works best for the area.
“It could be a great thing for Addison County if done well,” said Scheu. “As long as things are fully discussed, we’ll make good decisions.”

Beth Corey, owner of Red Clover Farm Market on Route 7 in Middlebury, sees both sides of the issue.
“I wouldn’t want our town to turn into a town with box stores,” said Corey, “but a moderate sized Target would draw people in and help the community. I don’t think it necessarily means that we’re going to have “super” anything – I don’t think anybody wants that.”

As both a resident and small business owner, Corey has a relatively unique position. She doesn’t want too much competition or her business won’t survive, but also with the demands of her job it is hard to find time to travel to get items at the best prices. Overall, however, Corey is in support of leaving the language out.

“I lean more towards not having the cap,” said Corey. “I don’t want to see strip malls and box stores in Middlebury more than anyone else, but one reasonably sized store would be a benefit to the community.”

Her customers are loyal, and she sees that as a testament to the mentality of Middlebury residents in general. Having a convenient place to get items ranging from baby strollers to senior citizen appropriate clothing would not necessarily mean a drop in sales for local stores because of the dedication shown by residents. It is also worth considering the possibility that a convenient retail store such as Target would draw people from surrounding towns into Middlebury, creating more economic flow and hopefully new customers to local stores.

Although opinions about the retail store restriction are varied and it has caused contention among people all over Addison County, communication remains the focus of the discussion.

“I think it’s important to talk,” said Wilson. “You can’t have a community where you aren’t listening to the other side. We should walk in our neighbors shoes for a bit and understand that both sides clearly love this town.”

The Better Middlebury Partnership will be facilitating those conversations in the upcoming months, in the hopes to come to a consensus about what is best for the town of Middlebury. At this point in time, it is unclear as to what the result will be but with the cooperation of businesses, citizens and the planning commission, all voices will be heard as the town strives to simultaneously maintain the feel of the town and promote economic growth.