Board recommends big box limits

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The Planning Board recommended last week a set of restrictions on large retail projects that would limit their size and could be a stumbling block for a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Westbrook.

The board voted, 7-0, to send the standards to the council. The standards were developed in response to a proposal by Wal-Mart to construct a 203,000-square-foot “supercenter” on the land currently occupied by the Saunders Brothers mill. The standards, which still need to be approved by the City Council, would apply to large projects in the Gateway zone that abut a residential neighborhood.

As they are currently written, the new standards would limit buildings in the Gateway zone to a footprint size of 160,000 square feet. The standards also set increased buffering standards, limit on noise levels and hours of retail operation to between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Planning Board member Greg Knapton, who voted against rezoning the Saunders property from industrial to Gateway, said he felt the additional standards were necessary to protect the surrounding neighborhood. “The most important thing is to protect the neighborhood,” he said.

Responding to concerns that the new standards would be too restrictive for businesses and would dissuade some businesses from considering moving to Westbrook, board member Christopher Parr said the needs of the residents must be considered as well.

“We’re citizens of this city,” Parr said. “We set the terms of what we think is required to protect our fellow citizens and at the same time be welcoming to businesses.”

Board Member Anna Wrobel said the new standards were not in response to Wal-Mart’s proposal. She said the board wanted to make sure there were protections in place for the neighborhood, no matter what is developed on the Saunders property.

“If it’s regarded as punitive by some, I just regard it as protective,” she said.

Eileen Shutts, a member of Westbrook Our Home, a citizens’ group opposed to the Wal-Mart proposal, said she was pleased with the result of the Planning Board’s work. “I think they did a good job,” she said.

Phil Serghini, Wal-Mart’s community affairs manager for the Northeast, had a different opinion on the matter. “We frankly were a little dissapointed with the site restrictions,” he said. “Those standards, if they are adopted by the City Council will handcuff us a bit.”

While she was pleased with the overall result, Shutts said she would still have liked to see the size of the store be limited to something smaller than 160,000 square feet, which she feels is too large a store to border a residential neighborhood. “The whole purpose of those standards is to protect a residential community,” she said.

Shutts said the larger store would bring more traffic to the area. “I don’t care what anyone says, the size of the store drives the traffic,” she said.

The standards must now be approved by the City Council, which will hold a public hearing on the matter before taking a vote.

City Council President Jim Violette said he has not reviewed the final document from the Planning Board yet, so he was not sure how he felt about the new standards.

Violette did say he would not support building a 200,000 square foot store on the site. While he said he did not want to see such a large store, Violette said he would possibly consider something slightly larger than a 160,000 square foot building as long as the neighborhood was properly protected.

Serghini said Wal-Mart plans to present its case to the council when it holds a public hearing on the matter. When asked if Wal-Mart would consider a store smaller than the proposed 203,000-square-foot Supercenter, he said it was not Wal-Mart’s preference to build a smaller store, but the company plans to wait and see what the council does before making a final decision.

Violette said he knows the Planning Board worked hard for almost a year on the new standards, and he said the council would take that into consideration. “I have to give credence to what the Planning Board did,” he said. “Usually the City Council supports the Planning Board wholeheartedly.”

The council will discuss the new standards and vote on a first reading at its next regular meeting on July 11 at 7 p.m. in room 114 of Westbrook High School. At that meeting, the council is also expected to set an Aug. 1 date for a public hearing and second and final vote on the matter.

In other news, the Planning Board reaffirmed its decision to deny approval to a 23-unit affordable housing project proposed for a plot of land off Reed Street.

On May 3, the board voted, 4-3, to deny the application of Community Housing of Maine to construct the project known as Clearwater Bend.

After a request by the applicant, the board voted unanimously to reconsider its vote on May 23. At the meeting on Tuesday night, however, board members did not change their votes.

Board members Wrobel, Luc Bergeron, Brian Beattie and Rene Daniel voted to deny the application. Board members Parr, Greg Blake and Chairman Ed Reidman voted in favor of the project.

Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine said his organization is currently in the process of finalizing a legal appeal to the board’s decision.

While they said they were in favor of affordable housing being built in Westbrook, Planning Board members who voted against the project said they felt the project, and the traffic associated with it would overwhelm the Reed Street neighborhood.

Wrobel said she liked the idea of the project, and would like to see it built somewhere in the city, but said she felt it wasn’t a good fit for Reed Street. She said she felt Clearwater Bend would have a negative effect on property values of existing homes on Reed Street.

“For me, the issue really is Reed Street,” said Wrobel. “Every project changes a neighborhood, there’s no two ways about that.”

Beattie said while he also thought the project was a good one for the city as a whole, the additional traffic associated with it led him to vote against the project. “We look at what’s going to be best for Westbrook, but we also have to look at what’s best for the surrounding area,” he said.

Ryan said he was not sure when the appeal would be filed in court, but he said Community Housing of Maine plans to pursue the matter. “We’re used to fighting for people that need affordable housing,” he said.

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