Monday, June 26, 2000

Middlebury Planning Commission pans college parking plan

Published in the Addison Independent

MIDDLEBURY - The Middlebury Planning Commission rejected one proposal, but left the door open for a smaller version of a proposed parking lot at Middlebury College during its meeting Wednesday night.

The meeting represented the third discussion on the project to expand the parking lot at the College's Center for the Arts by 149 spaces, and was met by significant neighborhood resistance.

In a split decision, the commission rejected the proposal for 149 spaces by a 5-1 vote, but postponed action on whether to consider a smaller proposal when the vote was deadlocked at 3-3.

The project would require the relocation of Porter Field Road, a college-owned road which is open to public traffic. The road will be moved roughly 65-feet closer to neighboring houses.

As part of the plan, the college said it would build an earth berm between the new road site and the adjoining residences in Chipman Park. The college also said it would make other modifications to the project to allay residents' fears of speeding cars and dangerous traffic.

Those changes, college facilities planner Tom McGinn said, include speed bumps and realigning the curve in Porter Field Road to be a squared 90 degrees, as well as a stop sign at the corner for traffic heading east on the road.

Plantings, berms and traffic controls like speed bumps, according to town planner Fred Dunnington, are normally considered to be "mitigating factors," elements which lessen the overall impact of the project on its surrounding area.

Despite having met earlier with college officials on the issue, one complication of the proposal was the resistance of local residents to those mitigating factors.

"We didn't agree to any berm. A seven-foot berm would make us feel like we were being bunkered in," said Chipman Park resident Greg Tomb.

"We also didn't agree to speed bumps," said Doris Dutton, another Chipman Park resident.

The college's proposal was further complicated by wanting to breach what it had earlier stipulated as a 100-foot buffer around the neighborhood. The edge of the road, at the new intersection, would only be 88 feet from the property lines in Chipman Park.

Chipman Park resident Barbara Tomb read a statement of opposition signed by 21 people, representing 16 property owners, including owners of all properties directly adjoining the project's proposed site.

The issues, Tomb said, were both existing problems which were not acceptable, and the expectation that the additional parking and road relocation would make the existing problems worse. New concerns, Tomb said, are pedestrian safety, property values and aesthetic imbalance in the area.

Other neighbors' concerns included noise and air pollution from the cars, light pollution from the parking lot lights, and traffic safety.

South Street resident Ruthe Ayres asked about the logic of adding extra spaces to a parking lot that is rarely used.

"That parking lot's not full most of the time," Ayres said.

The college has recently closed two of its major parking lots for planned construction. It also intended to expand the parking lot west of Ridgeline Woods, but currently lacks state approval for construction in that area, which is a wetland.

There was some indication from McGinn that the college might be close to a deal with the state. That added to the planning commission's uncertainty about the wisdom of approving parking near a residential area, when time might result in a new parking lot in a place with less impact on residents.

"You're bursting at the seams, and I think imposing on the neighborhoods is not the way to go," planning commission member Natalie Peters told McGinn.

Peters, however, was not the only strong voice among the commission.

"I think it's not unreasonable for them to do what they're doing," said commission member Bill Kenerson.

Kenerson recommended requiring reduction of the number of parking spaces and more green space, as conditions of approving the plan.

Commission chair Susan DeWind thought making so many changes to the proposed design was too much to approve without seeing it.

"You should not be designing a site plan," DeWind said.

McGinn and engineer Gary Fern wanted to know whether a smaller proposal might have a chance, or whether building a parking lot in the proposed location will not be approved by the board.

The board initially voted 5-1 to draft a denial of the plan with 149 spaces, but after further discussion split 3-3 on whether a reduced application might have a chance at success. Board member John Barstow was not present.

After a three-hour meeting on this one application, the board voted to recess the discussion until July 5.

McGinn was frustrated by the board's inability to decide.

"What we want to hear is some direction," McGinn said.

He was uncertain as to the future of the college's plans for development near Chipman Park.

"There's no guarantee they're not going to change," he said.