MIDDLEBURY — In a packed, often-heated public hearing at Thursday night’s Planning and Zoning meeting, residents lined up to express their disapproval of a proposed zoning change that would allow distribution centers in the town’s light industrial zones.
The applicant for the zoning change, Stacey J. Drubner, of JSD Partners in Waterbury, is proposing the construction of a 720,000-square-foot distribution facility on the 93-acre Timex Headquarters property at 555 Christian Road and the adjacent 18-acre parcel at 764 Southford Road – totaling 111 acres.
The location is close to the Long Meadow Elementary School as well as a number of housing complexes, including Avalon Farm and Benson Woods.
The project would include 90 trailer storage spaces and 450 parking spaces for employees, according to the town’s Nov. 29 Conservation Commission minutes.
The town currently allows warehouses to be used for storage in its light industrial zones at a maximum height of 35 feet. The proposed change would increase the height to 50 feet.
The change would add “distribution facilities” as a permitted use, defined as “a specialized warehouse that serves as a hub to store finished goods, facilitate the picking, packing and sorting process and to ship goods out to another location or final destination.”
At the hearing, attorney Edward Fitzpatrick, who represented Drubner, said that the project was consistent with the goals of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, which included promoting economic growth, encouraging industrial development and preventing sprawl.
Fitzpatrick said development in industrial areas of communities like Middlebury are “net, net, net plus positives” to the town’s tax base.
“All towns are fighting for this type of growth,” he said.
Fitzpatrick was interrupted a number of times by objecting audience members whom commission chair Terry Smith admonished would be given a chance to speak later in the hearing.
Ryan McEvoy, an engineer with SLR, Milone & MacBroom, who also spoke for Drubner, said that the request for a 50’ building height would accommodate robotic technology that required higher clearances.
When an audience member disrupted McEvoy’s explanation – saying that McEvoy was simply going to present a list of bullet points – Smith warned that the applicant had the floor.
“He gets to talk, you don’t,” Smith said. “When I open the floor up for comment, then it will be your turn… If you don’t want to follow it, I’ll ask you to leave.”
McEvoy explained that the 35-foot height had been established as the regulation in 1997, but the 50-foot was the modern standard.
When another audience member interrupted McEvoy, Smith responded, “Sir, one more time, and you are going to leave. The police chief is here. I’ll have him take you out.”
Jennifer Mahr, who lives close to the Timex property, said the first overall goal of the POCD is to “maintain the semi-rural character of Middlebury.”
“It doesn’t define how we do that, but our zoning regulations do. Middlebury is largely a residential community with small pockets of commercial and retail use, targeted for the needs of town residents. We do not intend for you to be able to shop for everything you need in one place. We stock the essentials and we expect you to do your traffic generating errands elsewhere,” she said.
She said that warehouses in Middlebury were to be designated primarily for the storage of goods and materials in conjunction with a manufacturing facility, prior to distribution.
Mahr said that current regulations prohibit trucking terminals except for the transportation of goods manufactured or assembled on the premises. She called the applicant’s description of distribution facilities as a “specialized warehouse for finished goods” a “completely generic definition,” which she said served “only one purpose: to give the developer a free pass to build whatever he or she wants with zero regulation.”
The audience applauded.
“This is designed to appeal to the greatest number of clients with the least amount of restriction on who those clients are or how they use the site,” Mahr said.
She urged the commission to put a moratorium on projects like this one until the town can “better define what uses we want and don’t want, what kind of traffic we’re willing to allow.”
She said that it was up to the commission to bring the town’s regulation up to date with the modern economy. “We don’t do that by giving the applicant a blank check to do whatever they want,” she said.
Another resident said that a poll on Facebook showed that 90 percent of the residents who responded were against the project.
Another resident, who is a resident of Benson Woods, an over-55 community adjacent to the Timex property, said the proposed changes were contrary to the POCD.
“Tractor trailers within 100 feet of the schools, and loading and unloading activities will be taking place within 200 feet of homes 24/7,” she said. “Changing the text amendment will only devalue every home in the immediate area and will constrain peaceful enjoyment of their homes by our neighbors and friends.”
Gary Kline, who said he spoke on behalf of the 44 homes in Avalon Farm, said the project would have a devastating impact on home values in the area.
Chris Martin, a resident of Middlebury, said that distribution centers operate 24/7, resulting in light, air and sound pollution.
“This is so clearly inappropriate, it seems unfathomable that the town is not fighting this, especially considering their stance on preservation,” he said. “It only takes a 60-second google search to see what damage these distribution centers do.”
He said the client is unknown and there will be no accountability.
“This is worse than Amazon. This would have none of the corporate responsibility,” he said.
Another resident pointed out that if the text change were approved, distribution centers could be built in the town’s other LI 200 zones, potentially including the former Uniroyal property at 199 Benson Road.
After two hours, Smith stopped taking public comment and said the hearing will be continued on Feb. 2.
“The applicant will have a chance to address residents’ concerns,” he said. “Right now we need to take it one step at a time.”
Information on the project can be found at on Middlebury’s Southford Park page.