by Peter Riviere
As part of the fallout from the conditional site plan approval of the Butson's/Supervalu expansion, the town will call together its select board, planning and zoning board of appeals members, Main Street program representatives and interested members of the public on Aug. 5.
The gathering is what Town Manager Pat Kelly calls "an open to anyone, free-for-all, brainstorming session" to address perceived shortcomings in the approval process for new business expansion in town.
In the space of three years the town has undergone an upheaval and a growing schism between those who would approve any tax generating proposal that comes along and those who are hanging tenuously to retain the town's traditional, colonial character.
It all started with the Rite-Aid proposal, with the planning board unsure what its power was to regulate the look and scale of that structure, which replaced the Connecticut Valley Dairy building and the Stickney homestead on Main Street.
That litmus test was followed in rapid succession by the Irving Oil plan for much of the same property Butson's will now develop as part of its expansion.
That plan was withdrawn when it was clear the town would not allow siting of a high-volume diesel fueling station for heavy trucks.
On its heels comes the Butson's plan, which will double the market's frontage and parking area while demolishing three buildings in its path.
"We want to try to avoid some of the same scenarios we went through," said Kelly.
"We want to see if we can expedite the process, get more established before plans go before the planning board, so they get final plans," he added.
One of the frustrations expressed by planning board members was that design plans for the new market never made it to the board for review until the very nights of the two marathon sessions that finally resulted in conditional approval for the market in the second 4-hour session.
The review process was hurried and flawed, ignoring some of the basic tenets of the town's site plan review regulations, particularly in regard to pre-notice and submission of the design plans 15 days prior to deliberations.
Secondly, as the whole of the Butson's Investment Partnership land parcels will be under development with a new 34,200-square-foot market and undisclosed reuse of the existing 18,000-square-foot market, the whole site could have fallen to site plan review en masse, and not pell-mell.
Chuck Butson said he has no firm contracts with any of several commercial/retail businesses he is negotiating with for use of the present market building.
Oft heard at the meeting was the planning board's anti-business, antigrowth stance and therein lay the pressure exerted on the members to expedite approval and hope for the best.
As acting planning board Chairman Stan Knecht remarked Tuesday night, just before motions were made to approve the Butson's site plan, "Two things you don't want to watch being made are sausage and legislation."
In Kelly's view, the Aug. 5 discussion will "take some of the pressure off the planning board so they are not perceived as being adversarial to business when the site plan review is underway."
Knecht believes the process is akin to a chain, with each link vital to its strength and integrity. "Break one link and the whole process is weakened," he said.
He told the select hoard earlier this week that he sensed they and the planning board were headed down separate streets regarding the empowerment of the planning board to live by the letter of the site plan review regulations.
Several planning board members wished aloud they had the time to consult with other supermarket architects and engineers to check the veracity of the Butson's/Supervalu proponents' contentions of the need for five parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of building.
While the board was deliberating, they were reminded that the company had an Aug. 1 dig date they were trying to meet.
Yet, Bill Mello, the regional manager for Supervalu, said the conceptual process began at Supervalu headquarters in Minnesota in February. Though the expansion was rumored in the community as early as then, no plans or design notions were shared with the town offices until sometime in May, and then not with the planning board until mid-June. Because the planning board sits in an adjudicatory or approval role, it cannot discuss the proposal with developers lest they be tainted in the final decision. Knecht has looked at other communities for a more workable model and cites a plan whereby an informal design committee meets with developers to spell out what an acceptable look and scale would be for a project.
While the town has some iterations of what is and isn't acceptable in the site plan regulations, those guidelines remain subjective and loose. Some in town have suggested that the Butson's plan rents a major credibility tear in the fabric and commitment to the Main Street Program, which stresses promotion of those qualities and assets the town possesses.
Still others point to the $5.6 million investment being made by the companies, noting that the town needs all the tax revenue it can find.
One suggestion by Bruce Houghton, a co-chair of the Main Street committee, is that a national Main Street staffer be employed to facilitate the site plan resolution in the Butson's imbroglio.
That same suggestion is being considered as a sensible approach to what could prove a contentious meeting on Aug. 5. In the meantime, other North Country communities are watching the whole process, wishing they were working through the growth pains Lancaster is experiencing.