RUTLAND — The application under Act 250 to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club in Rutland Town has been withdrawn, according to court documents, although the developer says the project isn’t necessarily dead.
Gene Beaudoin, director of retail development for Saxon Partners, said the company likely will reapply for a permit in several months. Saxon Partners, based in Massachusetts, is the project developer and would lease the space to BJ’s.
The proposed 81,500-square-foot shopping center with restaurant and gas station was one of the first projects to come before the District 1 Environmental Commission in Rutland after the adoption of Act 250 provision 9L, which seeks to limit sprawl and inefficient development in the state’s towns and urban centers.
The commission ruled the project was acceptable under provision 9L, but Diamond Run Mall, on the opposite side of Route 7, appealed the decision, with the Agency of Natural Resources as a party to the appeal.
Beaudoin said the developer was preparing for the next step in the appeals process but that mounting costs and waning interest on the part of the tenant had compelled the company to withdraw.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland. Mullin said the membership-only chain would attract shoppers from towns such as Middlebury and Manchester. Instead the movement tends to be in the other direction, he said, with residents traveling to Costco in Colchester or to a BJ’s in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
“It’s just silly,” Mullin said. “It’s another example of shooting yourself in the foot.”
The vacant parcel at the intersection of routes 4 and 7 was previously approved for the construction of a smaller L-shaped strip mall but never attracted developers. A few months after the adoption of provision 9L in June 2014, Saxon Partners filed a petition for a partial finding to determine if BJ’s would meet the new criterion. Real estate developer John Kalisch owns the property and had obtained the Act 250 permit.
In an analysis presented before the commission, Julie Campoli of Terra Firma Urban Design concluded the project did not comply. Provision 9L stipulates that applicants must demonstrate efficient use of land, energy, roads, utilities and infrastructure for projects outside of an existing settlement area. In addition, if the project is determined to be within an existing strip development it must seek to minimize further sprawl and resource use.
In an interview, Campoli said there were other ways to pursue development in an area like the stretch of Route 7 in Rutland and Rutland Town, which is defined by one-story buildings, large parking lots and heavy traffic.
“It takes moving from a low-density sprawl way of thinking to something that’s more compact,” Campoli said. “In the face of 9L, Rutland really needs to think about redevelopment.”
Campoli likened redevelopment to renovating instead of building a new house and said such a model does not have to exclude big box stores like BJ’s.
Campoli’s findings were supported by the Agency of Natural Resources, which concluded the “project constitutes an inefficient use of land, roads and utilities, as well as contributes to a pattern of strip development.”
According to the commission, which approved the project despite the critical testimony from its own expert, Campoli and the ANR reviewed the case as if the previous Act 250 permit had not been granted. Under the narrower scope of 9L, the commission concluded that the project complied with state law.
“The experts had no way of knowing prior to submittal of their reports that the commission would be narrowing the scope of 9L in this manner,” wrote John Liccardi, chair of the District 1 Environmental Commission.
For Rutland Town Manager Joseph Zingale and others who believe BJ’s would be an economic boon to the region, the story is less about 9L than it is about business competition with Diamond Run Mall.
“What I saw happen in this case was a classic use of process to delay and kill the application,” said Zingale. According to him, Diamond Run Mall, which has lost several large anchor stores in recent years, wanted to bring BJ’s into the shopping center.
When mall representatives realized that wasn’t a possibility, they appealed the permit, Beaudoin said.
But David Grayck, a Montpelier-based attorney representing the mall, said his client’s concerns aligned with those expressed by Campoli in her testimony before the commission. “The commission’s own witness said the project didn’t comply with 9L,” Grayck said. “Instead of listening to their own witness, the commission made the opposite decision.”
Beaudoin said there’s a good chance Saxon Partners will reapply for a new permit in several months. He said the project might need to be modified.
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