Opponents lay out arguments against Dollar General plan

This is Part II of a two-part series reporting on last week’s Dollar General appeal, today covering the testimony for opponents of the proposed Dollar General store in Chester and cross-examination. Feel free to share your views on the articles and the issues in the Comment section below the article or send us a Letter to the editor. On the Cover: The Windham County Courthouse in Newfane. Photo by Cynthia Prairie

Click here for Part I: Dollar General proponents testify.

By Cynthia Prairie
NEWFANE

Supporters of those opposing a proposed Dollar General store for Chester turned out for the first two days of testimony, turning what for other communities could have been a contentious spectacle into something more approaching a church meeting complete with potluck lunches.

Chester residents attended last week's court proceeding and discuss testimony during a break.

Chester residents attended last week’s court proceeding and discuss testimony during a break. Most courtroom photos by Lew Watters. Click photo to launch gallery.

Following last Tuesday’s testimony, focusing on the developer’s studies and reports contending that a 9,100-square-foot retail establishment fits in with the architecture of the community, Wednesday morning began with Diane Holme, who lives on a hill south of and overlooking the Dollar General site. The Dollar General is proposed for 1.37 acres across from the Country Girl Diner on Main Street. Holme testified that she had also opposed the project that plunked down the modern pizza house right on the site in the 1980s and that she drives past the site frequently and would find the presence of the large structure there jarring.

Following lunch, Richard Farnsworth, a painting contractor who lives on Depot Street and owns property adjacent to and overlooking the site from the north, testified that from the hill he can hear traffic and people talk at the pizza shop. He added that three-fourths of the year — when the leaves are down — “you can see the lights” below.

Chester residents gather around a table in the Windham Courthouse during a lunch break in the Dollar General case last week.

Chester residents gather around a table in the Windham Courthouse during a lunch break in the Dollar General case last week.

Holme was followed by Nic Rockler, an economist who has been working with Smart Growth Chester. Rockler had expanded on his earlier studies of similar communities, their retail offerings and the square footage involved. Rockler, who advises the State of Vermont on economics, testified that in communities with similar populations in Windham, Windsor, Rutland and Bennington counties, the average size of a retail store is  2,500 square feet and that most retail establishments are in mixed-use buildings that include commercial and residential spaces.

Alan Biederman, attorney for the Dollar General developer the Zaremba Group, on cross examination, asked Rockler he if he was aware that the Woodstock Inn is 40,000-square-feet, much larger than any other building he was addressing. Rockler replied that the inn is comprised of several buildings.

Chester architect on large buildings, roof slopes

Chester architect Claudio Veliz, who has been active in Smart Growth Chester, testified as both an expert and as someone who lives near the proposed project. He called the Dollar General plans “a dramatically different entity for that community,” adding that the Sunoco station is “abhorent” while the bank buildings are “formulaic.” The Country Girl Diner, he said, “is entirely different … a signature from a specific economic era and cultural time in this country.”

From left, attorney James Dumont and architect Claudio Veliz stand to listen to testimony.

From left, attorney James Dumont and architect Claudio Veliz stand to listen to testimony.

He was then asked by attorney for the appellants James Dumont to compare existing large business structures to the proposed Dollar General.  He cited the Vermont Country Store in Weston and the main Newsbank building in Chester, saying that both are extremely large, but with buildings that telescope to the rear and hide considerable parking in the back. Veliz then said that the angle of the Dollar General roof plan is problematic with its slope of 5 over 12 typical of warehouses, aircraft hangars and storage facilities, but not 19th century barns.

The buildings in Chester are as similar in mass as much as they are different in appearance.

Claudio Veliz
architect

In explaining that the building design is “formulaic,” Veliz said that in architecture that means that the building was “designed to fit a product and not the site, much like a cereal box.”

In describing the use of faux windows at the Dollar General, Veliz said they were generally used in skyscrapers to hide areas where there are mechanical systems like air conditioning. He added that he was unaware of any other building in Chester with that type of window.

Veliz then took the courtroom on a photo tour through Chester from the point of view of a driver, whose eyes are naturally drawn to the right. He called the buildings in his Power Point presentation “as similar in mass as much as they are different in appearance,” with a commercial residential downtown of gabled roofs and front porches that accommodates vehicular and pedestrian traffic. “They reinforce community,” he said.

Architect’s rendering called misleading

The original Dollar General rendering that architect Claudio Veliz called misleading. Click to launch photo gallery.

The original Dollar General rendering that architect Claudio Veliz called misleading. Click to launch photo gallery.

Veliz then surprised the courtroom by calling Zaremba’s architectural rendering of the Dollar General “misleading.” Saying that Zaremba used tricks of the architectural trade, he added that the drawing de-emphasizes the mass of the structure by using a featureless sky, a perspective that is from approximately 15 feet high so that “we are looking down into the entrance,” and vehicles  drawn larger to make the building look much smaller than it actually would be, which is 30 feet tall with a 5-foot high cupola.

Dumont then asked Veliz what mitigating features Dollar General could use that would make the building acceptable. Veliz responded with a long list that included significant fragmentation of the building surfaces, such as seen at the Chester Family Medicine building; real windows; clapboards; parking to the side and rear and a more pedestrian friendly front; a more steep roof pitch of 8 to 12 or 12 to 12.

Veliz shows what the actual height of the Dollar General will be with this line drawing on top of a photo he took.

Veliz showed the court what the actual height of the Dollar General will be with this line drawing on top of a photo he took.

Upon cross-examination, Biederman asked Veliz if any building like the Vermont Country Store could be built on the Zaremba site, to which Veliz replied, “No, but Zaremba chose that site. And it doesn’t preclude Dollar General from fragmenting the building … (and making it) more pedestrian friendly.”

Biederman then challenged Veliz’s characterization of the architect’s rendering and compared it to a similar featureless sky that is in his photos. Veliz responded that he had no control over the fact that “it was a rainy day.”

Biederman then asked: “Are you saying that the average person looking at the rendering can’t tell what’s going on?”

Veliz curtly replied: “Yes.”

Biederman tried to drive home the point that businesses on the Green mainly cater to tourists, “and there is no place to buy toilet paper on the Green …”  He then questioned Veliz about roof pitches and whether 25 specific buildings conformed or didn’t conform to the steepness Veliz said was indicative of Chester buildings. So, Biederman concluded, “Eighteen don’t conform, seven do,” to which Veliz replied, “your selection was prejudicial and ignored several conforming buildings.”

Veliz also noted that none of the nonconforming buildings is 9,000 square feet and that steeper roofs make a large building look smaller.

On windows and party status

Dumont next called to the stand Shawn Cunningham*, a representative of Smart Growth Chester, knowing that Biederman hoped to strike his testimony and have him declared ineligible to be a party to the lawsuit.

“For me personally, Dollar General would be a blight on a town I consider beautiful, an enormous mass plopped down in the middle of town,” Cunningham told the court.

Shawn Cunningham, left, and Smart Growth attorney James Dumont talk during a break in the proceedings.

Shawn Cunningham, left, and Smart Growth attorney James Dumont talk during a break in the proceedings.

Dumont then directed Cunningham to testimony on Tuesday from Michael Buscher, a landscape architect who testified that the 9,100-square-foot building fits in with Chester because it is similar to several other buildings in its gable end and roof line, which Buscher had called barn-like.

But, Cunningham responded: “The hardware store is under 5,000 square feet, the two banks taken together are about 3,500 square feet.” As for the lack of real windows in the Dollar General plan, Cunningham listed Buscher’s comparable buildings and the number of windows in each: “Buttonwood Farm — 24. Windows at hardware store — five. Church — 33. Post Office — 15. (American) Legion — 32. Stone House Antiques Center — 11.”

“The hardware store is under 5,000 square feet, the two banks taken together are about 3,500 square feet.” And as for the lack of real windows in the Dollar General plan, Cunningham listed Buscher’s comparable buildings and the number of windows in each: “Buttonwood Farm — 24. Windows at hardware store — five. Church — 33. Post Office — 15. (American) Legion — 32. Stone House Antiques Center — 11.”
Shawn Cunningham
Smart Growth Chester

As expected, Biederman tried to discredit Cunningham’s standing for living 4 1/2 miles from the Dollar General site.

But, Cunningham responded that, as a founder of ChesterUnited Inc., he has a specific interest in the strong economic health of the businesses of Chester. ChesterUnited, he told the court, was developed as a way to promote the town when two bridges were brought down for reconstruction in the summer of 2011, effectively closing the town off to tourists while the state detoured traffic. “I find that it will be harder to promote Chester with this massive eyesore. (ChesterUnited) is not a business interest … we spent hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours promoting the town … which we still do through the website ChesterVermont.org.”

A gateway to Chester

In the late afternoon on Wednesday, Dumont called David Raphael, a landscape architect and designer from Middlebury who did a visual impact study of the proposed store.

The locally made Chester sign, the reduced speed limit and the sidewalk are all town 'gateway' indicators, testified David Raphael. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

The locally made Chester sign, the reduced speed limit and the sidewalk are all town ‘gateway’ indicators, testified David Raphael. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

“The (Dollar General) project and the site plan is creating a discontinuous and incoherent pattern, westward into the village core, covering a greenfield with impervious surfaces. The landscaping is wholly inadequate. The building design is not a fit and is not appropriate, and the functional qualities do not appear to be as safe” in relation to traffic, Raphael said.

In describing area buildings, Raphael said, “There are a remarkable number of front, connect and back buildings arrayed up and down this area. But you have one large, three-dimensional mass (in the Dollar General) that creates a building that is the largest in this district  … creating a discontinuity in and around this area.” There are large buildings, Raphael admitted, “like a school and a church, but not retail. These create a different use pattern.”

Raphael then described the area beginning at Pleasant Street as a “gateway area. The notion of putting a mass marketing chain store is inconsistent with what a gateway is and how important it is. They establish place, arrival and traffic safety.” Raphael then described the features that create a gateway: The sidewalk, which starts at the bridge and heads west; the handpainted  Chester sign directing tourists to shops and businesses; and the 25 mile an hour posting that tells drivers to slow down as well as indicating an end to the state road.

A gateway establishes place, arrival and traffic safety. In Chester, it is created by the sidewalk, which starts at the bridge and heads west, the hand-painted Chester sign directing tourists to shops and businesses and the 25 mile an hour posting that tells drivers to slow down as well as indicating an end to the state road.

David Raphael
landscape architect

Dumont asked him about the Sunoco and the diner in the immediate vicinity. Raphael responded: “Just because there are nonconforming buildings doesn’t mean you want to (add to) that. … Just because it is a transition area doesn’t mean that you should create insensitive design.” During cross-examination on Thursday, Raphael added that neither the Sunoco nor the diner is so large as to undermine the gateway, and that both were built before zoning laws.

He added that a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General store would make it 3.5 times as large as the average commercial building in the area.

Dumont asked Raphael to describe “an acceptable 9,000-square-foot store.” Raphael ticked off: “Close to the street, story and a half, better articulation of roof, staggered layout, meaningful storefront, windows that display wares in a typical manner, much different landscape plan.” He added, “This would be a tremendous opportunity for Dollar General to be a part of Vermont and demonstrate its willingness to do such. More and more franchises are developing architectural patterns and forms that contribute something to the community.”

Clockwise from left, attorney David Cooper and landscape architect David Raphael  talk following the trial as attorney James Dumont and architect Claudio Veliz look over papers. Photo by Cynthia Prairie

Clockwise from left, attorney David Cooper and landscape architect David Raphael chat during a break  in the third day of the trial as attorney James Dumont and architect Claudio Veliz look over documents. Photo by Cynthia Prairie

On Thursday morning, Day Three of the trial, Biederman challenged Raphael’s belief that sidewalks increase pedestrian safety even though he had not done any studies looking into the issue. Raphael responded: “I think it is just logical. I’ve done studies in pedestrian facilities and it is accepted that where there (had been) no sidewalk, people begin using them. I have observed this in over 30 years of experience.”

Biederman also went after Raphael for not knowing “there is a large inn in Chester … what the largest building is and that there was an Army Reserve in Chester.”

The Zaremba attorney also attempted to discredit Raphael by showing that he is prejudiced against big box and dollar stores. While Raphael indicated he had not been in many, he said he does spend quite a bit of time at Home Depot. But, Biederman asked, “Do you think that the gateway area of Chester could reasonably be used for a Dollar General?”

“It depends on how it is designed. A well-designed building could possibly fit,” the landscape architect answered. There were no other questions and Judge Walsh then asked the attorneys to send any post-trial findings and conclusions by Oct. 15, before adjourning the trial shortly after 12:30 p.m.on Thursday.  A decision is expected sometime in November. In the meantime, the Chester Development Review Board has been reviewing an earlier approval and must return to the judge a decision complete with explanations.

*Shawn Cunningham is married to Cynthia Prairie, publisher, editor and reporter for The Chester Telegraph and a co-founder of ChesterUnited Inc.”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Cynthia Prairie says:

    Hi Susan,
    You are correct that a decision from the Environmental Court judge was expected by the end of November. It has not been handed down yet … and so we wait. As soon as we hear, we write an article.
    Cynthia

  2. Susan says:

    Was the Dollar General issue finally resolved? I thought it would be decided in November.