Smart Growth Chester, a group of residents who say they are interested in attracting businesses that fit the type of growth set out in Chester's Town Plan, came to address standards that must be met before the DRB can issue a conditional use permit to Zaremba Group to build the 9,100-square-foot store on 1.37 acres next to the vacant pizzeria on Route 103 South.
About 60 Chester residents turned out for the hearing on the conditional use permit, sought by the Zaremba Group, a nationwide developer based in Ohio that is focused on building large shopping centers that house national chain retailers.
David Cooper of Kenlan, Schweibert, Facey and Goss of Rutland, had been questioning Jean Vissering, a landscape architect who specializes in assessing the visual impact of development on communities. Vissering, who was hired by Smart Growth Chester, used a Power Point presentation to illustrate her points, but had to testifying by speaker phone since she has been laid up following knee surgery.
You can view her presentation here: CHESTER_DRB_PRESENTATION_Final.pdf
Vissering had focused her presentation on the Residential-Commercial Special Criteria in town zoning regulations that new construction “adhere harmoniously to the overall New England architectural appearance which gives the center of Chester its distinct regional character and appeal.” Such buildings, she said, have steep roofs, multiple stories, side or rear parking and are situated close to the street.
To illustrate, she showed both new and old construction in Chester and said that some, such as the Country Girl Diner and the Sunoco building fit the architecture of a time but likely wouldn't be allowed today. She added that some newer examples of buildings that adhere to the “New England style” include Gallery 103 and the American Legion, both with steeply pitched roofs appearing to be at least two stories in height.
Vissering also presented photos of homes neighboring Zachary's as illustrations of local architecture that reflects the character of Chester.
But Cooper continued to challenge her characterization of Chester as a “village” and of “historic New England architecture,” asking if there were not some historic buildings in New England that had one one story or a flat roof or were set well away from the street. Vissering replied that while there may be some such structures, they are not characteristic of New England.
Vissering said the Dollar General plan presented a “large box-like structure” with architectural detail that “bears no relation to the surroundings” and includes “large and highly visible parking” with “no meaningful open space.” The site, she added, “is an important gateway location that should reflect the lovely historic building of Chester.”
Pointing to the Country Girl Diner, with its front parking and lack of landscaping, the flat-roofed Sunoco building and the Stone House Antique Mall, with its large parking lot, Cooper said, “Every portion of your testimony that you say is inconsistent (with New England architecture), there are examples of like situations (to the Dollar General plan) in the area.”
Vissering replied that it would be best to try not to “repeat styles (of architecture) that don't go.”
At that point, Hudkins interrupted, asking Cooper, “How many of those structures were there before zoning regulations?”
“I don't think that is relevant,” Cooper responded.
“It is relevant,” Hudkins said, “and you should find that out.”
‘Every portion of your testimony that you say is inconsistent
(with New England architecture), there are examples of like situations
(to the Dollar General plan) in the area.’
The meeting began when Shawn Cunningham* of Smart Growth Chester presented a video of flooding on the site during Tropical Storm Irene. The video was shot by architect Claudio Veliz. Wayne LeFevre added animation to drawings of the proposed site . You can view that video here. Attorney Cooper objected to the supposition that 36,000 gallons per minute would flow through the site since Veliz is not a civil engineer.
Hudkins said, “We know the water was well-over the 100-year mark ...”
Later, Ellis Speath of Speath Engineering in Manchester read a statement that said that they will build so that the building is 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation.
Cunningham then returned to a theme he had brought up at an earlier meeting: That the character of a town is not just architecture of the buildings that occupy it. The Town Plan, he said, “offers a good sense” that the character of the town is economic, social, cultural and aesthetic. He then said the best description of Chester's character is in the word “local.” He quoted the Town Plan as saying it encourages a “strong and diverse economy creating satisfying and rewarding jobs” through the “expansion of existing business and encouraging business that supports the goals and aspirations of the community.”
Cunningham then used Dollar General's own 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission filing that refers to its “lean store staffing model” of two full-time managers and three or more part-time clerks. He contrasted that with the “customer service model” that he said is practiced by Chester businesses. Cunningham then challenged earlier testimony by Matt Casey of Zaremba. In August, Casey had said that Dollar General would bring in 10 to 15 jobs. But on Monday, Cunningham called that impossible.
According to Dollar General, he said, in 2010 it employed a total of 89,500 in corporate, distribution center and store locations. With 9,372 stores nationwide in 2010, Cunningham figures Dollar General averages 9.5 employees per store – but many work in other aspects of the business such as at distributions centers and in corporate offices. He then compared the “lean store model” with Lisai's Market, which has nine full-time and 20 part-time employees in a store less than half the size of the proposed store.
He estimated that instead of bringing money into Chester, a Dollar General store would remove $180,000 to $415,000 annually from the local economy not including job losses at local stores.
Cunningham also said that he believed a Dollar General would adversely affect property values. Second homeowners, he said, choose a town for a lot of reasons, “but shopping at a Dollar General is not one of them. Making the town less attractive to second homeowners, we should be very concerned with. They aren't tourists. They are taxpayers and they pay at a higher rate,” and “pay full freight for the schools.”
“It seems unlikely,” he said, “that visitors will flock to Chester to visit our Dollar General.”
He added that, “Injuring the character of a picturesque New England town … will reverberate through the tourism economy.”
“If people feel less like stopping in Chester because its suburban strip mall gateway makes them feel that it's not 'the Vermont they've been hoping to find,' there is an immediate loss to shops, restaurants and inns.”
‘If people feel less like stopping in Chester
because its suburban strip mall gateway
makes them feel that it's not the Vermont they've been hoping to find,
there is an immediate loss to shops, restaurants and inns.’
Smart Growth Chester
The Town Plan, Cunningham added, refers to growth at a “pace that does not destroy the Town's character.” Smart Growth Chester believes, he said, that adding “9,100 square feet of retail to a town whose biggest store is half that size is neither orderly growth nor a wise pace.”
Again reading from the Dollar General SEC filing, he said, “Many of our new stores will be located … where we have existing units. … (which) may result in inadvertent over-saturation of markets.” Cunningham then added, “With a Dollar General and a Family Dollar just 8 miles (away), we could envision a day when an empty Dollar General and an empty pizza house are the greeting we give those coming into town from the east.”
He concluded by saying that while his organization believes that a dollar type store is inappropriate for Chester, there is a need for reasonably priced goods. Alternatives, like the community-owned mercantile that was featured in The New York Times, he said, would fit the bill. Cunningham also wrote about the idea for chestervermont.org. You can read that here.
Citizen comment is being urged at the the next Development Review Board meeting on the Dollar General conditional use permit. It will be held on Monday, Dec. 12, beginning at 7 p.m. at Town Hall at 556 Elm St.
*Editor's note: Cynthia Prairie and Shawn Cunningham have been married for 21 years.
-- Cynthia Prairie