Plans to build a new Maplefields gas station, convenience store and restaurant along Rt. 7 in Charlotte have captured the attention of local residents who turned out en masse last week to have a say in helping shape the project.
More than 60 people attended last Wednesday’s Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing, where a team from Maplefields outlined the latest plans for the new commercial development.
Prior to the meeting, a letter with 171 signatures of people opposed to the project was given to the zoning board, planning commission and selectboard.
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 representing Maplefields 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 wiith parking for 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.”
Dave Marshall of Civil Engineering Associates, which is coordinating the project for Maplefields, explained in an email to The Citizen after the meeting 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 for residents 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.
Not everyone in the audience took issue with the project. Some brought up the Spear family’s cost to pay taxes on the property over the past decade.
Charlotte resident Gary Farnsworth said he understood that although not everyone will agree with the Maplefields development, he believes the company has responded to concerns from townspeople.
“What impressed me was Skip’s team’s response. From what I see, the revised plan showed that they listened,” Farnsworth said in an interview with The Citizen.
The conversation turned to traffic, pedestrian safety, and how vehicles will enter and exit the site. Marshall said that a more detailed presentation will come at the next conditional use meeting, since many questions remained unanswered.
Town Administrator Dean Bloch said that at their next meeting on Feb. 14, the zoning board will schedule a meeting to continue the discussion of the Maplefields plans. He said they will not discuss Maplefields in detail at the Feb. 14 meeting.
Some residents asked if a larger meeting space might be available to accommodate the public at the next hearing. Some sat on the floor and others stood during last week’s crowded meeting.
The zoning board and town staff said they would consider a different space.