EDITORIAL: What’s wrong with a new supermarket?

CALL ME A NEWCOMER, outsider, even a “cityot” (hint to Manhattan sophisticates, think “city idiot”). But I’ve spent most of my life in the Hudson Valley, the last decade of it here in Columbia County, and even in that brief period I have seen the landscape change. It hits me as I commute the three miles from metropolitan Chatham to downtown Ghent.

When I arrived here, long after the Harlem Valley Railroad disappeared, the settlements of Chatham and Ghent seemed like distinct communities with physical boundaries clear to an untrained observer. The Village of Chatham and its associated businesses stopped abruptly after the Agway store south of the village line, and the hamlet of Ghent coalesced in earnest just past the bridge where over the Kline Kill before it swings north toward Valatie. There were and are modest homes along the way that reflect succeeding vintages, but there were stretches of farms too and woods.

 

Now there’s hardly a break in development along that strip. A couple of new banks have opened at the lower end of Chatham (five different banks have branches in the village, making it the Switzerland of the county), a few new homes have gone up and most prominently there’s the impressive expanse of Camphill Ghent, a multi-building retirement community on the Camphill model. The most prominent vacant lot lies between the Price Chopper supermarket in the Chatham Plaza and the Fairpoint building. That’s where Price Chopper wants to build a much bigger store.

Why does Price Chopper need a new store? You have to drive all the way to Valatie or Hudson to get to a bigger market. But shoppers do travel for bargains and choice. Meanwhile, Hannaford’s plans to open new stores in New Lebanon and Livingston. The supermarket industry is fiercely competitive. Price Chopper executives seeking local approvals say they can’t build the type of market they want in the old plaza, so they plan to build their new building in the shadow of the old one, which will leave another vacant storefront in a village that already has a few too many of those. It will also deprive the village of a big chunk of taxes and fees until another tenant arrives.

The Price Chopper folks say they can’t build the kind of building they want on the existing site. They want a store that reflects the barns of rural Columbia County. They say that with no sense of irony. Someday, maybe all we’ll have are markets that remind us the farms that used to be here.

When I first visited Chatham, the main market, an A&P store, was near the circle at the heart of the village. It moved to the plaza, was absorbed by the Grand Union chain, which, in turn, was swallowed by Price Chopper. There have been valiant attempts to use that village market space, and maybe the latest one will prove successful, but it’s clearly a struggle. The Price Chopper executives know they have to give people what we want, at least until we’re trained to want something different.

If Price Chopper believes it can make more money with a bigger market in a commercial zone, the company should have the right to do it. The argument that the new store will create an empty space carries emotional weight but doesn’t seem fair short of a countywide comprehensive plan that discourages bigger-is-better development. Besides, the company isn’t leaving the community without a supermarket, and a bigger store should mean more jobs.

But while Price Chopper should not have to meet a higher standard than other businesses, it can’t be held to a lower standard either. The lot it wants to use has poor drainage and may include protected wetlands. Nothing should be built there until the development plans comply with environmental regulations.

Traffic too. Local officials should consider a requirement that the parking lot for any new adjacent retail space have a connecting road so that traffic can flow between the existing plaza and the new market without using Route 66. That could save gas and possibly lives. Who knows, shoppers might actually walk from one side to the other.

The Planning Boards of Ghent and the Village of Chatham will hold a public hearing on the Price Chopper proposal Wednesday, July 6 at 7 p.m. at Ghent Town Hall, Route 66 in the hamlet. The topic, more or less, is the shape of the future. If people don’t participate, business alone will set the agenda.

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