MANCHESTER -- A decision by the town’s Development Review Board to allow a Starbucks coffee house to receive a change of use permit on April 16 was appealed on May 15 by local businessman Bill Drunsic.
Drunsic said his appeal had to do with a drive thru area located at the back of the building Starbucks would occupy in the Equinox Square Plaza. His thoughts on drive thrus in Manchester were expressed in a Planning Commission meeting on April 21, he added in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Drunsic, who is also the chairman of the Manchester Planning Commission as well as an owner of a local coffee shop and restaurant, declined to elaborate further on the reasons for filing the appeal with the state’s Environmental Court.
"I feel that the Development Review Board made the wrong decision and that it needed to be appealed," he said. "It’s related to the drive thru; I don’t have a problem with them as a cafe."
In a letter sent to the Environmental Court announcing his decision to appeal the DRB’s permit approval, Drunsic stated simply that he was contesting the decision to grant the change of use permit "from retail to restaurant, fast food with a drive thru." The words "drive thru" are underlined in the letter.
The presence of an existing drive thru was central to attracting Starbucks to that location, according to Peter Keelan and Ed Dublois, the developers seeking to open the Starbucks in Manchester. If they are successful, it would be the fifth Starbucks in the state of Vermont, but only the first one outside Chittenden County.
Keelan and Dublois said in their DRB hearings that the drive thru would help alleviate parking. Starbucks received a parking waiver in their zoning permit.
"The drive-thru, with its 8-10 queue spaces and bypass lane, reduced the need to designate on-site parking spaces," the permit reads. "Starbucks is projecting that 30-40 percent of its customers at this location will utilize the drive-thru ... Furthermore, the cafe’s peak hours have been identified by the applicant as between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., before the adjoining retail stores open."
At the April 21 Planning Commission meeting, Drunsic spoke against the DRB’s decision to grant Starbucks a parking waiver.
"What’s happening today, unfortunately ... we [the planning commission] in changing parking regulations in the not-so-distant past, gave the Development Review Board more flexibility on meeting parking requirements," he said. "And lately the Development Review Board has chosen to, one might say, used a lot of flexibility in interpreting the current fast food definition."
Historically, he said earlier in the meeting, the fast food definition was written to keep chain restaurants with drive thrus out of Manchester.
Peter Keelan, one of the owners of Equinox Square Plaza, said they have a lease agreement with Starbucks, but an opening date has not been set so far. However, with this appeal, their opening date will have to be pushed back, he said.
The appeal was filed one day before the close of the 30 day appeal period. This appeal goes through the Environmental Court because it was a Development Review Board decision. The Subway appeal, which went before the DRB, was heard there because it was an administrative decision, made without a presentation of the board, said Allison Hopkins, director of zoning and planning.
Ed Dublois, the other owner of Equinox Square Plaza, said he and Keelan are very disappointed with Drunsic’s decision to appeal.
"We’ve spent a considerable amount of effort and capital to clean up our plaza. Pete and I see ourselves on the front lines of people trying to turn things around economically in Manchester," Dublois wrote in a press statement sent to The Journal. "And John O’Keefe and folks at the Town of Manchester have been a great help to that end. They understand that the status quo for Manchester is not going to work going forward. Things that worked in the past won’t necessarily work going forward. And now, for the sitting Chair of the Planning Commission to appeal a permit issued by the Development Review Board with a 5-2 vote is really a slap in our face, as well as a no confidence vote in the Development Review Board."
In a statement released by the town on Tuesday, with the intent making clear the Town is not involved in this appeal, Ivan Beattie, the chairman of the select board, stated the town was not associated with the appeal.
"While the Town supports an individual’s right to appeal, the Town believes that the Development Review Board granted a legal permit and it is prepared to defend its position in Environmental Court," the statement read. "It is important to note that the Town, and the Planning Commission, is not otherwise associated with the Starbucks zoning appeal."
Dublois and Keelan said they have an issue with Drunsic using his position, in their opinion, as planning chairman in this appeal. During the hearing on Starbucks, Drunsic is identified as both planning chairman and owner of Spiral Press Cafe when objecting to the project. Dublois said this appeal sends a bad message to prospective businesses looking at moving into Manchester, with a planning chairman opposing the decision of its peer board. Both Keelan and Dublois said this appeal, which does not have a reason stated on the filing, was done for economic reasons, because Drunsic also owns a coffee shop.
"The whole thing just doesn’t sit well with us ... Drunsic is the Chair of the Planning Commission and will probably claim his appeal on some technical zoning issue," Keelan said. "But let’s be honest here, there’s a sign in the Spiral Press that says 48 miles to the nearest Starbucks! That says it all as to what this is really about. On its face, it appears that Bill is using his influence as Planning Commission Chair to control his competition."
Reached later on Wednesday, Drunsic noted that this appeal won’t be coming before the planning commission, and he didn’t think there was a conflict of interest.
"Someone had to speak up," Drunsic said in a phone interview. "This decision has a substantial impact on many local businesses." He also felt that the DRB had not followed the intent of rules set forth in the town plan or the zoning ordinances as closely as they could have, he said.