More public input requested (Sept. 4, 2008)

Sept. 4, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The Williston Planning Commission got a more detailed look on Tuesday night at some of the possible changes and upgrades that could occur at Maple Tree Place.


    File photo
The owners of Maple Tree Place are considering changes aimed at improving pedestrian access and increasing the number of stores.  

During the Sept. 2 planning meeting, commission members listened to representatives of the Inland Real Estate Group, the development’s Illinois-based owners, talk about their vision of Maple Tree Place’s future and how changes could benefit the Williston community.

Inland representatives had a given a small preview of some of their ideas at a July Planning Commission meeting, but delved into more detail at Tuesday’s “community forum,” as commission Chairman Dave Yandell called it.

Inland applied to the town for a Specific Plan permit in July, the first company or organization to do so under Williston’s new bylaws. Under Chapter 9 of the bylaws, developers can apply for a Specific Plan permit only if the design is outside current zoning regulations and the design would offer public benefit.

Substantial benefit, as defined by the bylaws, must include conservation of open space, a create perpetual affordable housing, provide beneficial community infrastructure, be in keeping with a town center, provide more jobs and offer opportunities for improved transit.

“A lot of these details are the differences between it looking just OK or something looking great,” said Rick Hamlin of Hamlin Engineering, a Vermont-based firm working with Inland.

Proposed changes

Hamlin said the goal of the proposed upgrades is to look “15 to 20 years” into the future. He explained many of the possible changes during a lengthy PowerPoint presentation that included current photos of the development and artist renderings of what the future might hold.

“Something that definitely has to change is parking,” Hamlin told the commission, showing how parking is currently limited near many of the small shops.

Hamlin said there is limited parking around the development’s green, much of which is taken up by movie theater patrons. He said there is an opportunity to add up to 100 parking spaces at an existing green space that sits directly south of Quizno’s and the Government Services Agency offices.

Hamlin said the original plan for the development called for small retail shops to be built at the green space, but the buildings could be constructed instead near the pond at the north end of the development. Hamlin also said one of the proposed buildings near the pond could be partially used to house a community center or recreation center.

Inland is also looking to improve the lighting in the large parking lots near Shaw’s Supermarket and the Christmas Tree Shops. Presently, many of the spaces are not well lit at night, Hamlin said, showing late-night pictures of the parking lots. Hamlin said in order to better light the parking lots for safety, the light posts would have to be taller than the 25-foot maximum height allowed by the town.

“If we could go higher, we could make a huge difference and be more efficient and make lighting more uniform,” Hamlin said. “The goal, obviously, is to not light the site like a ballpark.”

Connie Kendall of St. George, who attended the meeting, agreed with Hamlin in saying both lighting and parking needs to change. She said she’s decided not to shop at certain stores if the parking is too full and the lighting makes the lots feel unsafe.

“As a shopper, I find the parking lot scary,” said Kendall, who is also a member of the St. George Planning Commission. “You can’t see.”

Also discussed was the creation of a park-and-ride lot, which could be located on the east end of Linens ‘n Things. Hamlin said there were 160 spaces available, with opportunities to add a bus stop. With a location near a current Chittenden County Transportation Authority route and proximity to Interstate 89, the public benefit would be large, Hamlin said.

Inland would also like to see improved signage from Route 2 and within the development, Hamlin said. Awnings above the stores in the development’s green are another possible upgrade.

One change shoppers will see next year will be a wooden gazebo, located at the northeast end of the green, for community concerts and events. Benches for the green will be installed soon, Hamlin said.

Public Benefit

Hamlin gave many examples during his presentation of how Maple Tree Place already provides substantial community benefit. He said Inland has already provided much of what the Specific Plan calls for, such as the construction of affordable housing at the east end of the development, the multi-use recreation paths located around several buildings and the creation of Maple Tree Place Road, which Hamlin said has lessened traffic at the busy Taft Corners intersection.

Planning Commission members voted at the meeting to create an advisory committee to discuss more in-depth details with Inland on what upgrades could take place and how they would benefit the town. Only commission member Joel Klein voted against the committee, stating he believes the plans could move forward now and town planning staff could work with Inland to forego a lengthy committee stage.

“To bring in a committee is going to drag this all out,” Klein said. “To me, this is an improvement on what’s already there.”

Yandell agreed with Klein in the concern over a slow committee process. However, he said he understood the importance of giving the public a say in the process. Town Planner Ken Belliveau agreed with the commission and said a committee is the best way to go right now.

“What would make this more successful would be a public process which would allow people to speak their two cents,” Belliveau said.

Toward the end of the meeting, the commission discussed who would be appropriate committee members. Commissioners hoped to include members of the Development Review Board, Planning Commission, Conservation Commission, the Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee, a representative of WING, community members from the nearby affordable housing neighborhood and tenants from Maple Tree Place. Hamlin suggested the group be co-chaired by a Planning Commission member and a representative from Inland.

Yandell and Hamlin said they hoped the committee could make recommendations to the Planning Commission in four months. The commission could then go before the Selectboard with is findings.

Residents interested in joining the advisory committee to review changes to Maple Tree Place should contact the planning office at 878-6704.