By MARK KOBZIK
Plans to build a new Maplefields gas station, convenience store and restaurant along Rt. 7 in Charlotte drew more than 60 people to a zoning meeting Wednesday night.
Much of the three-hour meeting was devoted to a presentation by a team from Maplefields outlining plans for the project that has sparked concern among local residents. A letter with 171 signatures of people opposed to the development was given to the zoning board, planning commission and selectboard ahead of the meeting.
Developer R.L. Vallee Inc. of St. Albans is seeking conditional use approval to redevelop a 2.95-acre site in the southeast corner of the intersection of Rt. 7 and Church Hill and Ferry roads. The spot is the former Denton gas station and nearby Uncle Sam’s snack bar owned by the Spear family.
Under the Maplefields banner, Vallee operates more than 40 gas stations and convenience stores in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.
Conditional use review looks at how a proposed development will affect its surroundings. Impacts such as traffic, and fitting in with the surroundings are considered.
The letter from residents stated multiple criticisms over traffic safety, environmental impacts and other issues including impact on town character. Resident Rebecca Foster who drafted the letter with several others, said the spot in question is important because its location serves as a “gateway to Charlotte” and because of that, the project is “very inappropriate” for Charlotte.
The letter said Maplefields would “dramatically change the landscape of our town” and called for slower deliberations since, “many Charlotte residents are not even aware of that it is under consideration.”
Skip Vallee, president of R.L Vallee said he was confident about updates made to the project plans so far such as including solar panels and addressing traffic safety concerns. He described the project as “reflecting the character of Vermont.”
Officials with the project spent much of the meeting discussing details of the design.
Although still a rough sketch, plans showed a 5,000-square-foot two-story farmhouse-style building which would serve as a restaurant and commercial farm stand, with 30 square feet of retail space. Outside, the site would have room for 35 standard parking spots, four charging stations for electric cars and a separate area parking several large trucks.
Designers made multiple references to an existing Maplefields location in Middlebury, saying the Charlotte plans would have a similar appearance.
Some had a difficult time envisioning the comparison looking at the computer drawings. “Middlebury feels different,” said zoning board member Stuart Bennett. He said the Charlotte design “looks like a hotel.”
After the meeting, Dave Marshall of Civil Engineering Associates in an email explained that drawings will be refined as the project moves forward. “Please keep in mind that the modeling completed to date does not yet have the level of detail that would fully represent the proposed aesthetics of the building,” he wrote.
Another concern raised was the proposed hours of operation. Maplefields plans to have the store open 24 hours. No other facility in Charlotte is open around the clock. In a question-answer period, Marshall said Maplefields would consider reduced hours.
The part of the project described on the application as a “commercial farm stand” was somewhat unclear. Project officials did not have specific details about what would be sold there. They said it would offer agricultural products from the region. When asked what is technically an “agricultural” item, project attorney Jon Anderson answered, “Anything we eat,” which drew laughs and shaking heads from audience members.
The conversation continued to traffic which covered pedestrian safety and how vehicles will enter and exit the site. Marshall said that a more detailed presentation will be come at the next conditional use meeting since many questions remained unanswered.
The zoning board will return to the Maplefields review in February. A few residents asked about a larger meeting space to accommodate the public. The zoning board and town staff said they would search for a larger location to continue the presentation from the company and to devote more to time to public input. By the time the public comment period happened Wednesday, about half the original group of residents had left due to the late time and limited seating.