Act 250 Commission hears Dollar General proposal, residents’ concerns

By Cynthia Prairie

Chester resident and businessman Richard Farnsworth owns property overlooking the proposed Dollar General. / Photos by Cynthia Prairie

Emotion tinged the afternoon testimony of many of the 13 people who spoke against the proposed Dollar General store on Friday, Nov. 9 before an audience at Chester Town Hall that at one point numbering more than 50.

One by one, Chester business owners, residents and a second homeowner — who had made a pre-dawn trip from her hurricane battered Long Island community — stood before the three-member Act 250 Commission to explain why they believe that a 9,100-square-foot “small box” chain store does not fit certain criteria required by the state.

The Act 250 hearing only allows those who are parties in the process to speak and 28 received provisional party status, allowing them to speak or submit testimony. Read a short piece on how the process works here. A party could apply to address any or all of the criteria, but could then only address those issues. The four criteria that Chester residents chose to address were:

  • 1. water and air pollution;
  • 5. traffic congestion;
  • 8. aesthetics, scenic beauty, historic and natural areas and wildlife habit; and
  • 10. compliance with local or regional plan.

You can read a short piece on the project here.

No Chester residents applied to speak in favor of the project at the Act 250 hearing just as no resident has spoken for the Dollar General at public meetings since the early days of the approval process more than 18 months ago.

Chris Ponessi of Speath Engineering explains the site plan in relation to the site. The green tape in the background denotes where the building would be built.

At 9 a.m. Friday, before the hearing began, almost 30 people — representatives of Dollar General, opponents and commission members — trekked through brush at the site on Main Street, across from the Country Girl Diner — to get a sense of the space. Chris Ponessi of Speath Engineering described how the built site would look.

An attempt by opponents to illustrate what a 35-foot-high building would look like failed when the PVC pipes that were put together began to bend as they were being hoisted by a group of men. However, David Cooper, an attorney for Zaremba Group (Dollar General’s developer) commented that he stood about 6-feet-tall, so it would be almost six times his height.

The hearing at Town Hall began at 9:40 a.m. with the District 2 Commission of Stephan Morse, former Vermont House speaker and former head of the Windham Foundation; chair Michael Bernhardt, a former member of the State House from Londonderry, and Stanley Borofsky, owner of the Sam’s Outdoors stores. Also in attendance was Linda Matteson, who is the Vermont Natural Resources Board commission coordinator.

Changes to the plan

Before taking testimony from the public, the commission listened as representatives for the developer, the Zaremba Group, recapped plans for the 1.37-acre parcel that included several changes made after speaking with the Southern Windsor Regional Planning Commission. Those changes included elimination of 24 parking spaces to make way for a green area “that could be used for a farmers market,” Ponessi said, and opening up of a median strip so that traffic could circulate.

Even so, Tom Kennedy of the SWRPC expressed concern that no sidewalks were added within the parking-pizza house-Dollar General area. Click here for a photo illustration of the new plan. (The annotations are The Telegraph’s.)

Dollar General attorney David Cooper of Rutland during the Act 250 hearing.

Zaremba’s traffic engineer, David Saladino, then presented his assessment of peak traffic hours for the region, contending that the addition of the Dollar General would add “only three seconds” to the traffic delay.

Commission member Morse called the nearby intersection of Maple and Main (Rt. 103 N.) “a rather notorious intersection in the whole state of Vermont.”

And Michele Bargfrede, owner of Sage Jewelry on the Green, objected to the use of Saturday for peak hours, saying, “Locals realize that the peak hours are Friday, Sunday and holiday afternoons.”

While Saladino said the Dollar General would add only 2 to 3 seconds of wait time in traffic at the intersection of Maple and Main streets, which currently has a peak wait of 25 to 35 seconds, Smart Growth Chester attorney James Dumont asked him to use the terms associated with the delay he defined. Saladino seemed reluctant to do this, saying that the length of a delay was a matter of personal perspective. Finally Saladino acknowledged that the existing condition is described in the Highway Congestion Manual as a “long delay.”

Aesthetics of the building

Representing Dollar General, landscape architect Michael Buscher, owner of TJ Boyle and Associates in Burlington, contended that the new building would “help bridge the gap” between the “commercial district” and the “residential district.” He also contended that the store would not be easy to view by those coming into town from the south.

The new building would help bridge the gap between the commercial district and the residential district.

Michael Buscher
landscape architect

Economist Nic Rockler testifies about the common retailing found in Chester and other comparable southern Vermont towns.

Opponents then presented their own experts, including Chester architect Claudio Veliz, who called the Dollar General design “a paratrooper project” that could be “dropped anywhere” and is “cheaply built.” Calling it formulaic, Veliz added, “New England architecture is not formulaic.” Veliz pointed out that a large amount of floor space can fit, but it should be broken up by telescoping from one building to another. Veliz pointed to Lisai’s and the Vermont Country Store in Weston as examples of New England architecture.

But with the Dollar General design, Veliz said, “The windows aren’t windows, the cupola is fake, the full doors are downtown Manhattan doors. It needs to conform to the center of Chester not to the storage sheds on the outskirts of town.”

The Dollar General design is a paratrooper project that could be dropped anywhere.

Claudio Veliz

Landscape architect Jean Vissering said, “Mr. Buscher alluded to a suburban pattern to the east and this (construction) fills the gap. My argument is that this is within the village. The American Legion, Gallery 103, Stone House Antiques, the Catholic Church, the bank all incorporated ideas from the town plan. I think the aesthetic impact would certainly be adverse.” She added that early on in the life of Act 250, the idea of breaking up the mass of a building was very important. “We seem to have gotten away from that.”

Nic Rockler, an economist who has worked with Vermont state government, looked at the substance and scale of retail in southern Vermont towns that are comparable in population size to Chester: Norwich, Woodstock, Poultney, Hartland, Pittsford and Westminster. Among the seven, he identified 551 nonresidential, “of which 51 are retailing only, 158 are mixed retailing and other uses” that include housing, apartments, offices, hotels/motels, B&Bs), “116 were storage, garage or shop buildings” and 218 were manufacturing and public or private institutions.

He said the average retailing space in the seven towns is 2,486 square feet, with the largest at 7,440. Dollar General, he concluded, would be 20% larger than the largest structure and 45% larger than the average, and would “not conform to the character of Southern Vermont towns…”

Public sites land values, beauty of the village

During the Act 250 party status hearing, Commission chair Bernhardt had urged the public to only address the four criteria and their impact on them as individuals, to try not to repeat what each other said since all testimony would be submitted in writing and to keep their emotions in check.

Richard Farnsworth, a local painting contractor who owns property overlooking the site of the proposed store, said, “The diminished view and added noise makes it undesirable to build there.” He also expressed a view that several others echoed: “People who see Chester as a dollar store town will be reluctant to buy here.”

Shawn Cunningham* of Smart Growth Chester described how he played a role in trying to attract visitors to Chester to offset the bridge closings of last summer and how, from that experience, he learned that that the Victorian look of the town played a major role in bringing much needed tourism. This was the reason he said that the project does not “fit” under the standard test for deciding what is an adverse effect under Act 250.

Kathleen Schoendorf, who traveled from Long Island, said she and her family wouldn’t have bought what they hope is their retirement home in Chester if a Dollar General had been in town. Several other residents agreed that they wouldn’t have made Chester their home had a Dollar General been in town.

Others, such as dollmaker Bonnie Watters and abstract artist Scott Morgan, said their businesses would not have the market without the tourism drawn in by the beauty of Chester. Interior designer Stephanie Payne agreed that some buildings in Chester failed to live up to the charm that many want. But, she
said, “One bad thing too many can tip things into oblivion ‘why should we add more.’”

But it was the testimony of Lonnie Lisai, owner of Lisai’s Chester Market, that had the biggest emotional impact of the day, drawing a round of applause from the audience when he finished. He described the history of his family in grocery business in Vermont and how the legacy continues. “We understand that business community and family are all one. We support this community and the community supports us.” Despite efforts by the commission to try to stop his emotional testimony, he was allowed to continue, saying, “I hate to see a mom and pop store go down. …” You can view most of his testimony above.

Shortly before 2 p.m., the commission recessed while it seeks to gather a more information. It will then either call another hearing or it will adjourn and begin to deliberate and decide. Once the commission adjourns, it has 20 days to issue its decision.

*Shawn Cunningham is the husband of the reporter of this article.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has 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, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Scott says:

    ok thanks

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    We’ve got an update coming out Monday.

  3. Scott says:

    What is the latest news on the Dollar General? Have seen or heard anything good or bad.

  4. Bill Reed says:

    This is testimony I was not able to give at the Act 250 hearing, because I had to leave before it was my time to give it:

    I have lived in small towns in Vermont – Peru, Grafton and now Chester – for 40 years. Ten generations of my family on my father’s side lived down the road in Walpole. All four of these towns have escaped having a big box – even a small box – store, and the aesthetic quality of these communities is immediately recognizable to residents and visitors, many of whom come for that very reason. It is instructive to note the different feel of the village of Walpole with its small shops and restaurants, sidewalks, churches and public buildings and monuments compared to the incipient strip development a mile away in North Walpole, accessible only by car, where a Tractor Supply Co. and a Family Dollar, with bright lights and extensive paved parking lots, have joined the existing shopping plaza, on prime agricultural land already under cultivation (Pete’s Stand Farm).

    But I would like to speak about another sort of “aesthetic.” The word refers, of course, to how things look, but it also refers, less visibly, to how things are. The “aesthetic” of the daily give-and-take in community life and commerce – the friendliness, openness, welcoming spirit and mutual support between townspeople and small merchants – there are plenty of them in town – is valuable and fragile. This is not the aesthetic of corporate commercial establishments with parking lots and bright lights and with headquarters far away with little concern for the community other than the profit they can extract by underselling the moms and the pops.
    I would like to mention the physical aesthetic, as well, though. A visitor to Chester, the Green, the Depot and the Stone Village, especially, notices commercial and residential buildings suited to their functions. Gussying up a neon-lit store like a barn, with a ridiculous cupola and a phony hayloft door, is a fraud, aesthetically dishonest and a physical slur to the town’s authenticity.

    And if much of America is any indication, one box leads to a string of them, creating a zone where nobody walks, everyone drives, and commerce is depersonalized.

  5. Judy says:

    Thank you to all who spoke out against Dollar General at the Act 250 Hearing. I am sorry I was not able to support you in person, but wanted you to know I appreciate your time, effort, eloquence and many well-made points.

  6. melody reed says:

    Thank you so much for this informative report. I couldn’t make the meeting and appreciate the news. Tough not to tear up watching Lonnie speak from the heart. I hate to see a Mom and Pop grocery go down too. Hopefully they won’t have to worry!

  7. lew watters says:

    Bonnie submitted evidence along with her testimony that included a November/December 2008 Yankee Magazine article titled “O Little Towns of Vermont,” by Christina Tree. In the very first paragraph of the article, Christina writes, “Different as each of these three communities [Grafton, Woodstock and Chester] is, all three towns offer real season’s greetings, about as far from hectic mall traffic as you can get.” What we learned from the many visitors to our shop was that Yankee readers follow these article recommendations almost to the letter, and we still keep seeing them.

  8. Claudio says:

    Most who support this type of development may be unaware of the affects they have had on similar sized towns in the rest of the country. Grocery and hardware stores are first to be hit by patently unfair undercutting practices by the big box stores, then they close. Meanwhile other businesses refuse to move into the community because of the rapidly “depressed” image. A casual, on-line review of the resultant impact on a town’s tax base is an exercise in depression.

    There is no characteristic I can identify in Chester that will decrease our vulnerability to lost local business, as has been the case nationwide. Financial gain is a corporate retail entity’s sole concern: not our country; not our state; not our town.
    The architectural evolution of a community is a tangible, visible history of its people; its character. To compromise this community’s character for a misperception of immediate tax revenue is to disregard its heritage and the quality of life of its residents. Eventually, those on both sides of the issue will suffer deep regret.

  9. Wayne says:

    Once again, thank you to those few souls who do the work for those of us who are too busy (read: lazy) to attend these meetings ourselves. (Speaking only for myself, I imagine that in most towns and cities one person at things like this usually represents a few hundred like-minded citizens who simply don’t bother.)