By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — Dozens of Ferrisburgh residents and a Vergennes Union Middle School class crowded into town offices for a Nov. 19 planning commission hearing on a petitioned zoning change. The petition was sparked by a recent proposal for a combined McDonald’s Restaurant, gas station and convenience store on Route 7.
That proposal has generated more interest — and opposition — than any in recent Ferrisburgh memory, even more, said planning commission member Bob Beach, than a proposal for more than a hundred homes and shops on a parcel next to the school and town offices two summers ago.
With those strong feelings in mind, Beach said planners are likely to make some kind of recommendation to selectmen for a zoning change, he said, although the issues are complicated.
“It’s important to note that it’s the biggest turnout ... I’ve ever seen come forward on a planning commission issue,” Beach said.
The petition in question asked for a zoning change for “commercially zoned areas” along Route 7 “to allow for no more than one gas station, convenience store, and/or fast food restaurant within each of our three commercial zones.”
It offered as a rationale that the areas are “too small in road distances (one-half mile or less in each designated area) to allow for safe ingress and egress of more than one of these businesses in each zone,” and requested the change “to ensure the safety of all motorized vehicles and passengers” traveling along Route 7 in Ferrisburgh.
Town Clerk Chet Hawkins assessed the mood of the crowd, estimated at roughly 75, without himself taking a position.
“It was predominantly in support of the bylaw to not permit the high-volume use of Route 7,” Hawkins said.
The petition did not specifically mention Champlain Oil Company’s September discussion with planners about a possible McDonald’s, convenience store and gas station on Route 7. That preliminary proposal was for a 2.5-acre parcel that was most recently occupied by the Ferrisburgh Roadhouse (which was destroyed by a fire last year), and before that by Burdick’s Country Kitchen.
But Beach acknowledged that on Nov. 19 plenty of people did mention McDonald’s.
“The bulk of the discussion focused on the McDonald’s,” Beach said.
Although some discussed the health angle of fast food, especially given that Ferrisburgh Central School is nearby, most at the meeting — including two students who observers said spoke well — focused on traffic and safety and concerns.
“There was no one who spoke positively about the gas station and McDonald’s,” Beach said.
Beach noted many thought the Champlain Oil site itself would be problematic because it is across Route 7 from an existing gas station, convenience store and deli.
“The petitioner was concerned about the traffic and the safety of the coming and going of the people visiting the station, particularly when there’s one right across the street from it,” he said.
Beach said the planning commission will meet on Dec. 17, and members will be thinking carefully about the next step before then.
Certainly, planners want to reflect the will of residents, he said.
“We’re just hopefully doing what the town wants. We certainly heard that McDonald’s wasn’t particularly favored for the town at that particular location,” he said.
But planners also have to be mindful of larger issues, Beach said, including the town’s overall business climate and the legal requirement to treat all applicants fairly and equally.
“The planning commission has to be objective, and it’s very important that everybody gets a fair shake, and that’s why there was not a quick decision rendered that night,” he said. “Everyone has to have the ability to think and process the information.”
Planners — and ultimately selectmen — do not have to use the petitioned language to make the changes, Beach and Hawkins said, but could rely on it.
Some residents at the meeting were concerned the wording was vague, Hawkins said; for example, some were concerned the proposed bylaw could allow for separate ownership of a gas station, convenience store and fast-food restaurant on adjacent lots.
But he said many believed moving quickly to adopt the petitioned bylaw could prevent the current McDonald’s proposal, and that officials could then take their time to craft a permanent replacement.
“People thought it wasn’t well-written,” he said, “but that we could adopt a better one and rescind this.”
The process for any zoning bylaw change calls for planners to adopt a proposal, call at least one hearing, and then eventually forward it to selectmen with any changes made suggested by residents. Selectmen would also be required to hold at least one hearing before they could either adopt the new bylaw themselves or put it up for a town-wide vote.
Currently, gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants are conditional uses along several stretches of Route 7 in Ferrisburgh. Proposals for those uses may be denied if they do not meet setback or acreage requirements, or if they are deemed not to fit the character of the neighborhood, but Beach said denials can be difficult to justify in many circumstances.
“If the application can meet the zoning regulations and it fits with the town plan, then it will be approved,” he said.
Given the strong feelings of many residents, Beach said planners are likely to come up with a proposal for a change on Dec. 17.
“As we move forward, we will suggest what we feel is the best solution for the town,” he said.