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Victor's last stand 

You'd expect a town named Victor to be a "winner." And the Ontario County community certainly is one, by ordinary standards.

            Overwhelmingly rural a generation ago, the town had 9,977 residents in 2000. It "grew by 36.4 percent between 1960 and 1970, 18.4 percent between 1970 and 1980, 43 percent between 1980 and 1990, and is projected to continue to increase by significant amounts well into the 21st century," says the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council.

            New (and expensive) homes pack Victor's gently hilly landscape; in 2000, there were 3,685 households in the town. Affluence abounds, too. A Wilmorite Inc. ad boasts that the company's Eastview Mall, at the town's northern edge, "enjoys an average household income within three miles of over $102,000."

            Victor has its charms. But the town's big draws are the mall and other developments along Route 96, near New York State Thruway Exit 45. And these developments seem to be constantly expanding. This past January, for example, Wilmorite announced the addition of 60,000 square feet to the million-plus-square-foot Eastview.

            But a new and similar development nearby may soon give Eastview a run for its money. And Victor may take another Great Leap Forward --- or make a Last Stand.

Benderson DevelopmentCompany, a Buffalo-based firm with offices in Rochester, New Jersey, and Florida, has put together a detailed plan for building "Victor Commerce Park" just off Route 96, by the Thruway exit. (The company already runs nearby Eastview Square, a 130,000-square-foot plaza with a Circuit City and other tenants.)

            The new Commerce Park's anchor will be a 204,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store. The two-phase plan for the 95-acre site also calls for five office buildings, three restaurants, a hotel, and other structures --- the final mix to depend on "market conditions."

            According to the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the leasable area will total 566,000 square feet, possibly a bit less, if a fallback plan is adopted. Compare that to Eastview Mall's 470,000 square feet (that's the mall per se, not including other buildings on-site).

            A project of this size will bring economic benefits to the town, by traditional measures. The DEIS, prepared for the developer by Henrietta-based FRA Engineering P.C., foresees 569 construction jobs --- that is, temporary ones --- followed by 677 non-construction jobs. Annual payroll is pegged at $19 million. The "estimated fiscal return" to town government, mostly in school taxes, is $3.9 million over five years.

            Will the new retail outlets generate new wealth for the area or merely shuffle the deck? Both, says the DEIS, in effect: "The potential impact... on any of the competing large chain stores... such as K-Mart, Target, Wegmans or Tops, is not believed to be significantly disruptive such that the competitor would fold and vacate the market."

            There'll be the usual "impacts," too. The DEIS says around 1.2 acres of wetlands will be "eliminated," and that compensatory wetlands will be created off-site, "within the same watershed." Also, the DEIS concedes the project will add to the area's burden of light and noise pollution, and that it will increase traffic.

            What does this add up to for the town? Certainly, there are planning and zoning issues aplenty.

            It could be argued that the area is already so over-developed that more development couldn't do much more damage. But a quick tour of the neighborhood shows otherwise.

            Directly behind the 95-acre site lie several upscale housing tracts which empty onto High Street, a two-laner that runs from Route 96, past the Victor public schools, to the village center. These housing tracts would share a long, thin "border" of greenspace with the Commerce Park. The border would not likely insulate the homes from the night-and-day commercial activity. Moreover, the Valentown Museum, a repository of local culture founded by the late historian-activist Sheldon Fisher and maintained by the Victor Historical Society, sits on 13 acres nearby, on High Street. The historic site already is a tiny island among roadways, commercial parcels, and parking lots.

            Don Robinson, a senior vice president with Benderson's Rochester office, acknowledges there's opposition to the project. "We've encountered some comments," he says. Indeed, negative comments reportedly flowed freely at a recent public hearing on the DEIS; a repeat was scheduled for April 29.

            Benderson has run up against considerable opposition with previous projects, too, says Robinson. When the company proposed to build Culver Ridge Plaza in Irondequoit, he says, around 600 opponents turned out for one meeting. But now, he says, "there's quite a level of acceptance; it's a question of listening to people" and understanding their concerns.

            "There's no question: When a property is no longer vacant, it's changed," says Robinson. So what will happen with Victor Commerce Park? "We're going to try to lessen the impact with berming, trees, and by lowering the lights on the parking field," he says. "We're very confident the project will be a long-term success."

            Robinson adds that the approval process is now at its "midpoint."

            City sought comment on the procedure from town planners, who referred us to project coordinator Stuart Brown, a Fairport-based consultant. Brown did not return calls or an e-mail seeking comment.

But some potential neighbors of the new Commerce Park are not so reticent. They've formed Victor Neighbors United (www.victorneighbors.com) to stop the project.

            They're also making common cause with Brockport residents who are trying to stop a Wal-Mart in their town. (A national campaign against the spread of Wal-Mart has been gathering speed, too. See, for example, www.walmartwatch.com, a site sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of many unions that oppose the notoriously anti-labor chainstore empire.)

            VNU leader Pat Palomaki has lived next to the targeted site for two-and-a-half years. What's her basic gripe? "We think it's too big for that property," she says. "We're concerned about the impact it will have on property values. We feel like we're up against Goliath." High Street and properties off it are still "semi-rural," says Palomaki. "We were attracted to the rural atmosphere and convenience of access to Eastview and the Thruway."

            Palomaki spoke passionately at a recent Victor Planning Board meeting. Her statement, posted on the VNU website, tells of a political transformation. "This proposal," she says, "has turned us and our neighbors into 'accidental activists.' We did not expect to have to defend our own back yards when we moved to Victor, but now we have no choice."

            The uprising is very middle-class. Palomaki tells of homes worth $250,000-plus that already are affected by "a K-Mart, Dicks, Borders, Circuit City, Michaels, Target, Home Depot," and other stores nearby. She asserts that the Commerce Park will produce "retail redundancy... bordering on the grotesque." And she makes a forecast: Once the development is up and running, neighbors will be "serenaded by the sounds of the air conditioning units, the idling delivery trucks, and of course the increased traffic coming from a seven-lane Route 96."

            Douglas Fisher, a city of Rochester resident, has similar worries. He has deep roots in the town of Victor, especially in the hamlet of Fishers, which bears the family name. And as local historian Sheldon Fisher's son, he's got a feel for the terrain.

            Fisher anticipates a great increase in traffic --- and widened stretches of road --- near Valentown. This, he says, will surely "make access to the museum and to [public] events very difficult." He notes that many shoppers will come to the Commerce Park via High Street and Valentown Road, part of the "back way" to Route 31 and the Palmyra-Macedon area.

            He's also got a more deeply rooted worry: that new construction could destroy Native American artifacts, like those his father retrieved along High Street years ago. (The DEIS maintains "no significant cultural resources will be impacted.")

            Fisher says his father "fought long and hard to protect Valentown from the depredations that accelerated in recent years." Evidence points to a long fight ahead, too.

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