The Planning Board postponed a vote last week on new restrictions that would apply to large retail developments, such as the proposed Wal-Mart.

The new standards would apply to businesses in the Gateway zone. The Planning Board listened to more than three hours of public comment on the new site plan standards last week.

The matter has not been placed on an agenda yet, but Economic and Community Development Director Erik Carson expects that the board will vote on the standards at a meeting this month. The board was scheduled to meet yesterday, May 3, after the American Journal’s press time, but the matter was not on the agenda.

The site plan review standards are in response to a request by Saunders Brothers to rezone the site of its former mill from industrial to Gateway Commercial. The zone change, which was approved by the City Council last year, cleared the way for Wal-Mart to propose building a “Supercenter” on the site.

In response to concerns from Westbrook Our Home, a citizens group that has been outspoken in oppostion to the proposal, councilors last August directed the Planning Board to come up with a list of site plan review standards to provide for additional protections for the surrounding neighborhood. The council also made the new standards retroactive to last August so they would apply to the Wal-Mart proposal, which at that time had not been formally made to the city. The retailer submitted a sketch plan for the site to the Planning Board in March.

The new restrictions being considered by the Planning Board would apply to large projects proposed for the Gateway district. As they are currently written, the standards would limit building size to 160,000-square-feet of land on the site, which is smaller than the 203,000-square-foot store being proposed by Wal-Mart. The standards also increase the buffer between the site and the surrounding residential properties from 50 feet to 150 feet. In addition, the new standards would restrict hours of operation to 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.

At the hearing, neighbors said they felt the proposed standards did not go far enough, and urged the board to do more to protect the neighborhoods surrounding the site.

Helen Black of Cottage Street said she was more concerned about noise levels coming from any development on the property than what the actual building looked like. “I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it’s quiet,” she said.

Black said she felt a 160,000-square-foot building was not compatible with a residential neighborhood. “In my mind, the restrictions are not stringent enough,” said Black. “You’ve got a whole neighborhood at risk.”

Robert Barton of Clifford Street also thought a 160,000-square-foot store was too large for the site, and he urged the Planning Board to consider mandating a smaller store size. “The 160,000-square-foot minimum is way too big,” he said. “That’s not characteristic of the neighborhood.”

Barton suggested that the size be lowered to 60,000 square feet, which would be comparable to the size of the Hannaford store on William Clarke Drive. “There’s no need for a store to be any bigger in this area,” he said.

Eileen Shutts of Westbrook Our Home also urged the board to consider a smaller store size. “A 160,000-square-foot store doesn’t begin to be compatible with the neighborhood nearby,” she said. “If someone wants to build on the edge of neighborhoods, they should do so in a size and scale that’s compatible.”

Saunders Brothers President Josh Saunders said he felt the Planning Board developed the standards to protect the neighbors, and that limiting the size of the store or increasing the buffer would not provide additional protection for the neighbors. He said developers can take steps to protect neighbors within the existing standards the city has for the Gateway zone.

“If the performance standards work, then further buffer standards are not needed,” Saunders said.

After the meeting, Carson said he appreciated the neighbors’ concerns and he hoped the board would weigh those along with the need for development in the city when making their decision. “I think that the neighbors eloquently expressed their concerns, and I hope the new standards don’t kill development potential,” Carson said.


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