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Common sense in Ferrisburgh

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In Ferrisburgh last week, about 100 residents attended a zoning board meeting to question a proposal that would build a large gasoline/diesel service station that would also include a restaurant and convenience store. The crucial issues here are the scale of the project and the “undue and adverse” aesthetic effect the project would have on the community.

The specifics of the plan speak for themselves. Proposed to be built on the former 9.04-acre site of Burdick’s Country Kitchen (on the eastern side of Route 7), the 4,800-square-foot building would be surrounded by 2.34 acres of asphalt, including four larger parking spaces for commercial trucks, RVs or cars towing trailers; 16 poles would feature LED lights and a small picnic area. It is, for comparison sake, the Wal-Mart of service stations.

The project, according to Montpelier landscape architect Jean Vissering, who was hired by a group opposing the proposal, would have nine times as much pavement as any other development in Ferrisburgh; and only one other development in Ferrisburgh along Route 7 had a light pole with LED lighting — and they had only one, compared to the proposed 16 light poles of the project under consideration. “The project,” concluded Vissering, “would create a significant eyesore at the southern gateway to Ferrisburgh’s civic center, an important community focal point.”

That assessment has not been seriously contested. What is contested is that the town plan — which outlines things like aesthetics and overall vision for sections of the town vis-à-vis development — has much of anything to do with the project.

Bristol attorney James Dumont countered the argument by Champlain Oil Company (COCO) that the town plan is not the document that controls zoning permits and that what COCO is proposing is an allowable conditional use, by noting that Vermont’s conditional use law may consider “the character of the area affected, as defined by the … standards of the municipal plan.” The impact of the proposed project would be considered “undue” and “adverse,” Dumont said, if it “violates a clear, written community standard,” “offends the sensibilities of the average person,” and “the applicant has failed to take generally available steps … to improve the harmony of the proposed project with its surroundings.”

The town plan, in other words, is an active force in the interpretation of how communities allow specific projects to be developed. It doesn’t set out the strictest details (zoning ordinances do that), but it sets the tone for future interpretations 50 years from now. It is more than just “the vision thing,” as senior George H. Bush so famously said — a point that is pertinent to the ongoing discussion in Bristol as well.

But here’s the kicker: COCO’s lawyer, Liam Murphy of Charlotte, contends that the town plan is advisory only and that the project conforms with the town’s zoning laws. Furthermore, COCO doesn’t appear interested in modifying its proposal to meet the whims of a vocal populace. It’s headed to Environmental Court anyway, said representatives from COCO in a story last week, so why bother with such arguments in a public discussion?

To that last quandary there’s only one answer: Because it is the duty of the town’s elected and appointed officials to carry out the will of the public as best they can, and not cow-tow to projects that will overbuild and change the character of the community. In Ferrisburgh, it is apparent that a significant number of residents do not want the character of their village to be seen as cookie-cutter New Jersey highway; they want to contain the scale of this project to fit within the town’s stated vision.

Is it so much to ask that companies like COCO modify their proposals to fit the majority view; too much to ask that public sentiment counts as much as zoning criteria? If it is too much to ask, area towns should take note and fortify their town plans and zoning regulations with the strongest of language to keep those who would turn a blind eye to public opinion out of the development business. Ideally, towns would want developers whose intent is to build projects that mesh with a community’s values. Alternatively, towns should infuse their zoning regulations not only with specifics, but also with over-arching statements that outline community values.

Still, it seems absurd that the town plan and the zoning regulations are not seen as equal parts of the overall development policy of the town. Common sense says the town plan is a document with power, along with the zoning ordinances, and in tandem that combined vision rules the day. (If not, why are towns obligated to update the town plan every five years but not the ordinances?) But if not, towns throughout the county will want to take another look at their plans and zoning ordinances to see that both cover the necessary grounds before a project lands on their doorstep that violates public sensibilities and common sense.

-Angelo S. Lynn

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