(This story was first published in the February 28, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By George Calver
QUECHEE — The District Environmental Commission heard testimony Thursday evening, February 21, 2013) in an Act 250 hearing to sort out the conflict between the Hartford town plan and the plans of the Regional Planning Commission regulating land use at the site of the proposed Quechee Highlands project near the intersection of Route 4 and the exit ramp from Interstate 89—a situation that has caught the developer “In the cross-fire,” according to the developer’s attorney.
In a written brief, Paul Gilles, the lawyer representing the developer summarized the issue before the Commission, as follows: “What a strange situation this is. Rarely have I seen such a collision of values.”
The Hartford Planning Commission has approved the plans of developer Scott Milne of B&M Realty LLC to build a mixture of office, retail and residential space in a cluster of buildings on land abutting the Mobil station, but the Two Rivers — Ottauquechee Planning Commission has opposed the development on the grounds that the development would not be in compliance with its’ regional plan.
In the main, the dispute relates to permitted use: the town plan allows, among other things, for retail space use —stores typically found in a shopping mall — while the regional plan foresees travellers’ services such as gas stations, fast food restaurants, park and rides, and truck stops.
In his opening remarks, Paul Gilles urged the District Environmental Commission to grant the developer an Act 250 permit since B&M’s application was based on the town plan of 2007, a plan which, according to the attorney, was confirmed by the Regional Planning Commission.
Gilles stressed that the Hartford Planning Commission had approved the project and that the Town of Hartford had agreed that the development satisfies Criterion 10 of Act 250, and that the Regional Planning Commission belatedly had taken the position that the development was in nonconformity with its’ 2012 plan. Criterion 10 is that the use of the land must be “in conformance with any local or regional plan.”
Tim Taylor, the Environmental Commission Chair asked for an explanation as to why there is a convergence” since, as he stated, “this project has been around for a while.”
Peter Gregory, the Executive Director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Planning Commission told the Chair that his commission had looked at the Hartford town plan back in 2007 and, at the time, had informed town officials about inconsistencies between the plans. According to Gregory, the Hartford planning department also had been told that the town plan needed to be amended within five years in order to comply with the regional plan.
Lori Hirshfield, the Director of the Hartford Department of Planning and Development replied that the town had done extensive planning with the Regional Commission before and after 2007 and that when the issue came up “It was a bit of a surprise.”
Hirshfield added that the town went on record to disagree — basically, that the town did not need to comply. She went on to say that there had been agreement between the parties to meet and review the issue, but that with interruptions such as tropical Storm Irene nothing was concluded. However, she stated, “I do not feel that the town has been negligent in dealing with the Regional Commission, and the zoning is consistent with the Master Plan.”
When the Chair asked Peter Gregory if the plans had to be consistent, Gregory replied that it was “not an absolute requirement that it be in compliance with the (Master) Plan.” However, he added that the Legislature had set out reasons to be consistent, pointing out that towns which did not comply might be denied certain state grants.
Elizabeth Humstone, a planning consultant who was called as an expert witness by the Regional Planning Commission, said that she had concluded that the developer’s plan would have a “substantial impact” on the area and would be a “growth center” — something prohibited under the Regional Plan. The consultant also stated that the Regional Plan stipulates that there be no “principal retail uses” at interchanges.
When the Chair asked Peter Gregory to describe the differences between the 2007 and the 2012 regional plans, Gregory answered, “No changes.” He also said that his testimony would not have been different if it had been based on the 2007 Plan rather than the 2012 Plan. He concluded, “We must not degrade the functionality of Route 4.”
In response, the developer’s lawyer reiterated his opening statement to the effect that the proposed use is in line with 2007 zoning. He said “It is our position that it is consistent with the 2007 Plan.”According to Gilles, “It is only a definitional problem” and that “Hartford has looked at it and said we do not want strip development.”
Joe Greene, an architect for B&M Realty, told the Commission that the project was “a new level of development.” He stated that” there would be no building devoted to retail” and that it would encompass residences and offices with some retail and restaurants. The objective was to “develop a sense of community”.
Following the architect’s remarks, David Rataj, an abutting landowner who has opposed the development throughout the hearings — including those of the Hartford Planning Board — told the gathering that at the last hearing someone had compared Quechee Highlands to the Church Street Mall in Burlington. The landowner added, “It might be pretty, but it is retail.”
Rataj also expressed his concerns that run-off from the development might contaminate his well, but was given assurances by a representative of the developer that the situation would be monitored, and that if a problem occurred, B&M would rectify the situation, including replacing the well.
Reservations about the release of water from a proposed holding pond into wetlands and a brook were discussed but raised no real controversy.
The meeting concluded with the presentation of a computer-generated picture of what parts of the development would be visible coming from the West on Route 4. The presenter, Chris Holzarth of Trudell Consulting Enginners, pointed out that the development is partially screened by existing topography, and that vegetation will be added. When asked by Mr. Rataj what would be visible coming the other way on Route 4, Holzwarth responded that “the buildings would be partly masked by trees, but visible as you approach the site.”
Before the meeting was adjourned, Peter Gregory requested that the Regional Commission be accorded time to file a written brief in response to the one filed by the attorney for B&M Realty. The Chair granted that request.
No party to the hearing asked for further public hearings, and so it appears that the Environmental Commission now will have to decide if the developer has satisfied all of the environmental and land use criteria under Act 250, including coming down on one side or the other of a conflict that the town of Hartford and the Regional Planning Commission have not been able to resolve on their own.
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