The first public airing of a proposed 30-acre development on Route 3 that would be anchored by a Tractor Supply store got mixed reviews from the City Council, Planning Board and members of the public on Jan. 8, but the project was ushered ahead to the next stage of review.

The plan centers on a uniquely zoned 80-acre property west of Crocker Road, which is owned by B&G Properties, a limited liability company of New Hampshire developers Bob and Gary Bahre. The City Council rezoned the property in 2008, designating it as the only possible location for a retail store larger than 75,000 square feet, a threshold meant for a big box store or supermarket.

The change was billed as a compromise in the big-box debates — the city would allow a location for a large retailer but maintain significant control through contract zoning, which give the City Council final authority over many details of a development.

The new proposal is the first since the property was put under contract zoning, and a requirement for a master plan proved to be an uncomfortable fit for parties on both sides of the negotiating table.

Tractor Supply Co., working through DMK Development, has proposed to build a 19,000-square-foot store, with another 15,000 square feet for outdoor display. The store would sit on 6 acres. City Planner Wayne Marshall compared the size of the store to Aubuchon Hardware on Route 1, which is 20,000 square feet, not counting the greenhouse.

Beyond the Tractor Supply store, the master plan includes only suggestions for other possible uses, which prompted some city officials question the use of reviewing it.

Drawings presented Tuesday night showed an access road from Route 3 with the Tractor Supply store on one side, two smaller buildings designated "retail" and one "bank." Farther from Route 3, the access road was flanked by a restaurant and hotel, an assisted living complex and a multifamily housing development.

Tractor Supply is the only specific business associated with the plan. City Planner Wayne Marshall has previously described the master plan concept as good for the city because it takes into account the development as a whole, and good for the developer, who can walk away from the process with a vote of confidence from the city about certain uses that could help sell lots within the development later.

While the idea of a Tractor Supply was well received in comments from some of the 35 people in attendance Jan. 8, the unknown aspects of the plan offered a blank screen on which residents projected their hopes and fears for the prominently placed property.

Neighboring property owners from Crocker Road and Springbrook Hill Condominiums voiced concerns about increased traffic in an area that is already congested at certain times of day. Marshall said the Tractor Supply would not bring a high volume of traffic and a formal traffic study would be required as part of the process.

Some worried that approving Tractor Supply would wedge the door open to larger retailers. Several speakers asked city officials to think of the property as a "gateway to Belfast," giving visitors their first impression of the city. Others urged officials to take a long view of commercial development using "smart growth" principles.

Several city officials, including Marshall and Councilor Mike Hurley, said the proposal actually exemplifies smart growth because it concentrates new development around an access road, instead of letting it sprawl, one store deep, along the highway.

Marshall likened it favorably to the cluster of retailers on Starrett Drive. He contrasted that with historic zoning on Route 1, which resulted in a sprawling business district and compelled the city, at one time, to extend its sewer system to the Searsport town line.

Hurley added that Tractor Supply could open a store on Route 1 today. "That is sprawl," he said.

The Planning Board and council were charged with answering two questions on Tuesday: Should the city require an economic impact study, and should the current plan move ahead to a preliminary review by the Planning Board?

They approved both, though with some reservations.

A half-dozen representatives from three companies affiliated with the plan were present Tuesday night, answering questions. But each represented only one facet of the plan, and city officials grappled with how to approach the approval process.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Ryan was the first of several board members to ask for clarification about who, in fact, was applying to build on the property.

Marshall said the master plan was submitted by B&G Properties, while the sketch site plan review for the Tractor Supply store was submitted by the company's agent, DMK.

Eric Kettler of DMK said Tuesday that the company is only the contract purchaser for the 6-acre lot to be used by Tractor Supply.

"This doesn't give me a lot to go on, if there's only Tractor Supply," Ryan said. Others echoed the idea that the master plan was essentially a vehicle for a Tractor Supply application.

The council and Planning Board, voting together, unanimously approved moving the plan ahead to a preliminary review by the Planning Board. They voted 9-2 to forgo an economic impact study but reserve the option to call for the study later, when more of the development proposal is known.