WARRENSBURG - Stewart's Shoppes is seeking to relocating its Main St. convenience store to a new site on Stewart Farrar Ave. across from the First Presbyterian Church - and the proposal is not without its detractors.
Stewart's proposed new store would be constructed on the 1.2-acre property now owned by Hudson Headwaters Health Network, across Main St. from the Grand Union strip mall and Emerson House Bed & Breakfast.
Stewart's Shoppes official Tom Lewis said Monday that his company has signed a purchase contract to purchase the land from Hudson Headwaters. The plot extends from Elm to Main St. along the northern side of Stewart Farrar Ave.
The property includes the former U.S. Post office, which HHHN has used for 15 years or so as a billing operations office for their 11 health centers. The rest of the land is now used primarily for parking.
The purchase contract is contingent on a zoning change, which would be a decision of the town board.
Some residents have already expressed opposition to the proposed development, noting that the store would mean yet another new commercial operation in a historic district, and invade a residential neighborhood, creating problems with traffic, litter, noise and fumes.
But Lewis responded that such problems would be minimal and that the new Stewart's store would be an asset to the town.
The HHHN billing office would be demolished to make way for a new Stewart's store, built with Adirondack-style architecture, plus a multi-pump fueling island set nearer Main St. than the store. The space on the property, Lewis said, may allow an additional office building to be included in the plaza.
Lewis said changing locations and building a new store was undertaken to allow for better on-site traffic flow and a more accommodating experience for customers. The proposed site is about double the size of the existing store's site.
"Anyone who has been in our existing parking lot knows how difficult internal circulation is - and with this new development, we'd completely alleviate those problems," he said. "At this point, we want to invest in improving our locations."
It's no secret that parking at the existing Stewart's store has been frustrating, as customers' cars are routinely wedged in between the store and other motorists filling their tanks at the gas pumps.
Nearly two years ago, Stewart's had planned to buy the Potter's Diner property next door to their existing store on lower Main Street to accommodate a new store and fuel island.
Stewart's had signed a purchase contract with the presumed owner, Virginia DeFranco, but after a legal wrangling between her and Potter's Diner operator Rena Morehouse, Morehouse ended up selling the property to Toney Properties LLC, a partnership headed up by Jack Toney, for $157,990 this fall and Morehouse signed a two-year lease to operate the diner, which is now out of business.
The Toney partnership then offered the property to Stewart's for $500,000, a price that Lewis said was far too high.
"The property off Stewart Farrar is much more desirable, considering its size and location," he said. "It will accommodate vehicles towing boats and trailers, and the lot is large enough to have more pumps, adequate parking, good traffic circulation and landscaping - the parking area is substantially better too."
A zoning change would be needed because a rectangular portion of the property on the intersection of Elm and Stewart Farrar is zoned Professional Multi-Family - which doesn't allow busy retail operations - while the rest of the plot is Hamlet Commercial, which would allow the store.
HHHN founder Dr. John Rugge said he hopes the zoning change is approved soon.
"In my view, this is a win-win situation - the town gets a much nicer Stewart's in the middle of town in a high-toned professional setting," he said.
Rugge said the sale of the property would put the property back on the tax roll, and it would mean additional revenue for the town government, considering the new construction.
Lewis said his firm would be spending a minimum of $1.4 million to build the proposed plaza. Now, with the property owned by Hudson Headwaters - a not-for-profit organization- it is exempt from property taxes, although HHHN makes a payment in lieu of taxes and provides dozens of local solid jobs.
Eileen Frasier, owner of Seasons Bed & Breakfast just south of Emerson House, said that putting one plot back on the tax roll doesn't offset the potential loss of property value of neighboring businesses and homes if the new Stewart's were located there.
"This proposed convenience store would encroach in a historic district and a residential area," she said. "Besides, there are already three gas stations within four blocks of each other, and two others nearby. Also, nobody wants to buy a house across from a gas station."
She said her guests at her enterprise would be bothered from gas fumes, and the area would be blighted with litter, traffic, noise and light pollution.
"My guests come here because it's serene, it's historic and charming, and in the center of town," she said.
Frasier said the store would prompt additional traffic congestion at the intersection of Main and Stewart Farrar Ave.
"Route 9 is already congested with traffic moving north, and there will be backups with so many extra left-hand turns at the intersection," she said. "It will be 'congestion alley.'" But Lewis downplayed the concerns.
"We'll be very sensitive to neighbors," he said. "our studies show that 80 percent of our business is 'bypass traffic' and we don't generate more congestion on the public roads."
Lewis said his company would use landscaping and natural screening as appropriate with the neighbors in mind. He also said that exterior lighting would not be intrusive, and it would be focused downward to minimize glare - unlike other convenience stores with fuel islands.
But Emerson Bed & Breakfast owner Faith Buck said she was concerned about the likely additional all-hours activity near her enterprise. Noting that Stewart's stores close late at night and open early in the morning, she said she'd be fighting a zoning change.
"We don't need people congregating across the street at all hours of the day and night - I'm absolutely against the proposal," she said. "This doesn't add to the community, it detracts from it."
Frasier and Buck both questioned whether selling beer that close to a church would be legal. Lewis said late Tuesday that he checked with state authorities, and it was indeed legal - Grand Union now sells beer adjacent to the First Baptist Church, he observed.
Warrensburg Town Board member John Alexander said he supported Stewart's expansion at the present site, where the commercial traffic is routine and accepted.
He said he fully supported preserving the historic character of Warrensburg, which includes the integrity of its gracious residential neighborhoods.
He also questioned whether the additional vehicle traffic around the store would interfere with children getting to and from the local elementary school - two blocks away, and Richard Library, which would be right across Elm St.
"I campaigned supporting Stewart's expansion at their present site," he said. "I'm hoping they can go back and renegotiate to purchase the Potter's Diner property."