FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment has issued a conditional approval of a Champlain Oil Co. plan for a gas station, convenience store and fast-food restaurant on Route 7. But the approval came without elements of the proposal that COCO officials said were critical to their business plan: diesel fuel pumps and a drive-through window for the restaurant.
The board (ZBA) took that action on Sept. 16 and publicized it last week once COCO acknowledged it had received the ruling in the mail.
Board members had decided on Sept. 2 to reopen deliberations on COCO’s plan, but reconsidered that move in the following two weeks. Chairwoman Charlene Stavenow said because the ZBA never warned a new hearing, the board was able to proceed toward making its unanimous decision two weeks later.
“I felt we had enough information,” Stavenow said, adding the ZBA ultimately came to “a complete consensus” on a 9-acre plan that many residents have opposed as incompatible with its surroundings and out of scale with development in the area.
Others have objected because the restaurant could be a McDonald’s, while COCO officials have maintained their proposal simply conforms with all relevant Ferrisburgh zoning statutes.
COCO planning, development and construction manager Paul Wamsganz said “getting an approval was better than getting a denial,” but that several of the conditions — notably the decisions not to allow diesel pumps or the drive-through window — were “puzzling.”
“The conditions are difficult for us to put our arms around, so to speak,” he said. “So we are contemplating what to do.”
Wamsganz said Tony Cairns, owner of the South Burlington business, was out of town until this week. The two plan to sit down this week and start considering options. Meanwhile the clock is ticking — COCO has just until mid-October to appeal the decision to Environmental Court.
Wamsganz said a court appeal is one of four options: “potential reconsideration by local authorities, taking our tent and going home and never to return, appealing directly to Environmental Court, or proceeding with the conditions as they are.”
Another interested party to the nine-month process has been Friends of Ferrisburgh for Responsible Growth, which obtained official party status and hired Bristol attorney James Dumont to argue against COCO’s proposal. Group member Nick Patch forwarded a statement to the Independent last week after the group reviewed the decision.
It read: “The Friends of Ferrisburgh for Responsible Growth are awaiting COCO’s response to the Zoning Board decision after which we will determine what action to take. One option for FFRG, should COCO appeal the decision in Environmental Court, is to counter appeal as an interested party. We will weigh all the information and decide accordingly. FFRG appreciates all the hard work that the zoning board did to reach its decision.”
In its ruling, the ZBA also insisted that COCO’s lighting plan and main sign be scaled back, that a pretreatment component be added to its septic system, that operating hours be restricted to 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., that stormwater drainage be improved, and that noise at property lines be limited. The site in question is the former home of the Ferrisburgh Roadhouse, not far from the town’s office building, elementary school, and a small village area about two miles north of Vergennes.
But the key conditions, Wamsganz said, are those that read, “There shall be no diesel pumps associated with the project,” and, “There shall be no ‘drive-thru’ component of the restaurant.”
Without those elements, Wamsganz said COCO has to question the project’s economic viability.
“In today’s world you need a multi-faceted business to succeed,” he said.
Wamsganz acknowledged the diesel pumps would serve through truck traffic, but noted many local residents and businessmen, such as landscapers, also own diesel pickups, tractors and off-road vehicles.
“It would be excluding a portion of people who need diesel fuel other than truckers,” he said of the condition.
Historically, many fast-food restaurants also do a large percentage of their business with drive-through windows, Wamsganz said, features that work well for local families with young children as well as for through traffic.
The ZBA based those conditions, according to the decision, on traffic issues. One finding of fact calls COCO’s traffic studies inconclusive, and states, “Absent conclusive evidence that additional traffic, especially additional diesel truck traffic attracted to the area by the inclusion in the project of a diesel pump area ... will not have an undue, adverse impact, the ZBA concludes that the project as presented will ... increase traffic in the area to an unsafe level.”
Elsewhere in the Findings of Fact, the ZBA referred to the overall scope of the project. COCO has proposed a 4,800-square-foot building on a 9.04-acre lot with a 34-seat restaurant and a Jiffy Mart; gas and diesel pumps, both covered by peaked-roof canopies; and extensive landscaping and parking, including four large parking spaces suitable for tractor-trailer trucks, RVs, or vehicles towing trailers.
The decision states, “the ZBA finds the project to be of a scale so large and out of character with the area so as to have an adverse impact on the character of the area, the traffic on the road and highways in the vicinity, the Town Plan and bylaws in effect, and the appropriate use of development of adjacent property.”
What’s next for COCO, Ferrisburgh and the current owners of the land in question — Greg and Sue Burdick of Vergennes and Claudia and Marcos Llona of Shelburne, both couples who are former owners of restaurants on the site — may be determined by discussions among COCO officials in the near future.
“Could we just bull ahead? ... Yes.” Wamsganz said. “But we are a family-owned business. Strong, but we don’t want to have a loser to spite ourselves. We want to win, and we want the local people to win. We want a good facility.”