(This story was first published in the July 11, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By George Calver, Standard Correspondent
HARTFORD —Citing traffic safety concerns and a failure to comply with the regional plan, the District 3 Environmental Commission last week denied Quechee Highlands’ application for an Act 250 permit to develop a commercial and residential property in Quechee.
The commission,headed by chairman Tim Taylor, concluded the project would have caused “unreasonable congestion or unsafe conditions to transportation,” according to a report released July 3.
Only the first phase, composed of approximately 100,000 square feet of commercial space in nine buildings and a nine-unit residential building, on a 12.8 acre parcel of land abutting the Mobil station near the Interstate 89 ramps on Route 4 in Quechee, was under consideration by the commission.
The project had received final approval for mixed use development by the Hartford Planning Commission on Oct. 17, and had been designated within the Hartford Master Plan as a “growth center,” but the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission — which has regional planning authority — said the development was in conflict with the regional plan and the Route 4 site was not an appropriate location for a mixed-use development, since it would modify existing settlement patterns.
B&M Realty paid about $2.5 million for the various parcels of land making up the 168 acres and had planned on spending more than $30 million on the first phase alone to develop the property for housing, retail and office space over several years. To date, somewhere between $3.5 and $4 million has gone into the land and project, according to B&M Realty co-owner Scott Milne. The Pomfret resident, and owner of Milne Travel, also hoped that the development would stimulate economic growth and attract business away from the West Lebanon shopping malls. In addition, B&M Realty contemplated developing a portion of the remaining land for single family homes at a later stage, with about 90 acres being set aside for conservation.
Milne, said that he was “disappointed” by the decision.
“(The commission) took a lot of time and we were optimistic that they would rule in our favor . I feel that we were ambushed by Two Rivers. We had conversations with them all along — going back five years. We worked with the town as well, and made compromises along the way. We thought that our plans for Route 4 would slow down traffic and make it safer,” Milne said.
The commission took note that Route 4 was one of the few east– west arteries in Vermont, had been consistently studied and evaluated over the last 40 years, and rated “poor” in engineering standards. Also, both of the ramp intersections of Route 4 and I-89 northbound and I-89 southbound were high crash sites with 14 crashes reported in the northbound ramps and 17 crashes reported in the southbound ramps in the most recent five years of available data.
A traffic analysis presented during the course of the hearings projected that the site could generate as many as 215 cars an hour onto Route 4 during the morning rush hour. The commission also observed that the proposed project would increase delays at the intersection of Quechee Main Street and Route 4 and at the intersection of Route 4 and Route 5 in White River Junction and might cause drivers to “take chances.” The developer has several options available at this stage. It could file a motion to the Commission within 15 days to reconsider its’ decision, or file an appeal to the Superior Court, Environmental Court division within 30 days. An appeal would result in a “de novo” hearing—a whole new hearing with a lot of expense. It also could file amended plans within six months in an attempt to convince the commission that the new plans address the Commissions’ concerns.
Asked what he would do next, Milne responded:“We are still absorbing the decision and will take a look at the remedies and decide.” He added, “I am still optimistic that it will be built and that it will look a lot like we had originally planned.” Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Commission said, “We were pleased by the decision. We feel that the Commission took into account all of the testimony and made the right determination.” The Hartford Planning Commission has not taken a position on the ruling as of yet. Its director , Lori Hirshfield stated, “We are in the process of reviewing the Act 250 decision and understanding what it means for the town.” Several businesses along Route 4 have supported the project.
“It is ridiculous. If he owns it and pays taxes on it he aught to be able to do what he wants with it,” said Scott Willey, the owner of Charlie Brown’s, a small engine sales and repair business located just west of the proposed project.
David Rataj, a homeowner on Costello Road, opposed the project because of concerns about his water supply, the aesthetic impact it would have on his property , as well as on Route 4 safety.
“It’s a win for my neighbors, for myself and the Village of Quechee. The road is not safe. It needs to be widened and the southbound exit ramp needs to be moved east 500 yards or more, and the road is not the right spot for a shopping center,” Rataj said.
To subscribe to an electronic edition of the Vermont Standard and get your local news every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. click here. – Only $25/year