By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — Despite the opinions of most residents who spoke at Thursday’s packed public hearing at the Grange Hall, Ferrisburgh selectmen unanimously rejected a zoning petition and planning commission amendments that would have limited fast food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations along Route 7.
More than 100 residents and other interested parties and other interested parties attended the hearing. Among them were developers whose proposed project would include fast food, a convenience store and a gas station at the Route 7 spot where the Ferrisburgh Roadhouse and Burdick’s Country Kitchen formerly stood.
Most who spoke urged selectmen to table the petition, an action they said would leave its intent in effect for another four months and allow volunteers to work with the planning commission to write improved zoning bylaws that would clarify the intent of the petition.
That petition cannot legally block the Champlain Oil Co. (COCO) proposal for the Roadhouse site, selectmen said, but if its intent is adopted could prevent further such developments in highway commercial zones along Route 7.
Judy Chaves, a member of Friends of Ferrisburgh for Responsible Growth, which sent flyers to residents opposing the COCO plan and supporting the petition, was among those who supported tabling.
“I see the petition providing the safety net,” Chaves said, adding the “vast majority” of residents oppose the type of development proposed by COCO.
But selectmen said they did not want to see zoning written under a timetable. After the selectboard meeting that followed the hearing, Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said selectmen believe planners should proceed with a zoning rewrite, but not while keeping one eye on a calendar.
“I don’t think it allows the process to fully mature,” Lawrence said. “When it comes to writing zoning regulations, you don’t want deadlines.”
During the board meeting, Lawrence also stated the sentiment that the amendments — which would create a limit of one fast-food restaurant, one convenience store and one gas station in each of the three commercial districts along Route 7, two of which already have convenience store-gas stations — are not acceptable as written.
“It certainly seems that the proposal amendments as presented are not making everyone happy, and it has to go back to the planning commission,” Lawrence said.
Chaves and others at the meeting said they shared the sentiment.
Selectmen also said it was not their place to become involved in zoning questions.
“It’s up to planning and zoning to make the corrections. We just have to say yea or nay to any proposal,” said Selectman John DeVos.
After the board meeting, COCO officials also clarified point about their application. It pictures a Jiffy Mart and a McDonald’s Restaurant, as well as gas and diesel pumps with canopies on the east side of Route 7. Roughly half the land is now owned by Marcos and Claudia Llona of Shelburne, who operated the Roadhouse, and half by Gregory and Susan Burdick of Vergennes, former owners of the Country Kitchen.
Although the application shows a McDonald’s, COCO official Paul Wamsganz said if approved the eatery would not necessarily be one. COCO officials acknowledged McDonald’s is the South Burlington firm’s “top choice,” but Wamsganz said COCO does not have a contract with McDonald’s. But by law, he had to include a sign sample on the zoning application, and he chose the Golden Arches because he didn’t want COCO to later be accused of trying to “slip one past” the town.
The possibility of those Golden Arches in an area many residents consider the town’s center has sparked much of the opposition to the COCO plan, which will have its first zoning board hearing on Wednesday.
Several middle school students at the hearing held signs opposing McDonald’s, one that referred to “McGarbage,” “McPollution” and “McTraffic,” and another with a bar across the arches.
But as Lawrence said on Thursday, the point of the meeting was to discuss the petition and its amendment, not whether Ferrisburgh was lovin’ McDonald’s.
“I’d like to ask everyone to stay focused on the real purpose of the public hearing,” Lawrence said.
About a dozen residents spoke to applause in favor of the intent of the petition, which they said they saw as protecting the town’s rural, small-scale character from unwanted types of commercial development.
Rick Kerschner asked selectmen to remember that officials and residents had resisted several attempts to “change the character of the town center,” including efforts to move the town office to land near the fire station and to allow intensive development of a 30-plus acre parcel next to the town office building and elementary school.
“In the past town officials got it right and preserved the town center ... please do so (this time),” Kerschner said.
Kurt Plank said the right regulations could boost both business and aesthetics.
“I’d like to urge the selectboard to very, very carefully look at this. A defining factor of Ferrisburgh is that we are split up and down by Route 7 right up the middle,” Plank said. “We can have an attractive community, even though it is on Route 7 ... We can adopt zoning regulations that can made it an attractive ... business-friendly community.”
Conservation Commission Chairman Craig Heindel was among those who asked selectmen to table the petition, and he presented the board with a statement from the commission that made that formal request.
“Tabling this petition will allow time for the zoning by-laws to be revised, while protecting the town during the revision process from development that is not in conformance with the town plan,” it stated in part. “We ask the selectboard to request the planning commission to immediately begin work on revising the bylaws.”
But not all residents agreed the proposed changes were a good idea. Al Myers said that changing zoning laws in response to a specific proposal could create legal liability for the town.
“The town needs to be careful,” Myers said. “You’re opening yourselves to the possibility of lawsuits.”
Myers also wondered if adopting those or similar changes would send the wrong message to those who might want to do business in town in the future.
“You’ll never have anyone want to do anything in the town of Ferrisburgh,” he said.
Businessman Jeff Provost, owner of Creative Carpentry and Dock Doctors on Route 7, said the proposed changes eroded the property rights of Route 7 property owners and undermined their real estate values.
“They bought their properties with those rights in place,” Provost said. “If you take those away from us ... you’re driving that investment out of town.”
Provost, whose remarks also drew applause, said that he pays $20,000 a year in property taxes and employs 50. Loss of rights might cause him to reconsider expansion in Ferrisburgh.
“Everybody needs a place to work,” he said. “This is saying to me, do I want to add 30 jobs here, or do I want to do business elsewhere?”
Provost’s remarks drew praise for his business, and proponents of zoning changes said they would try to draw distinctions.
“That’s a value-added business,” said Gerald Vaughan-Hughes. “It pays a decent, livable wage. It adds value to the community ... Zoning should address businesses not on an equal basis. Businesses that go into Ferrisburgh have to be the right businesses for Ferrisburgh.”
But Provost pointed out that the amendments as proposed could still tie his hands. If his business slowed down and he wanted to rent a portion of his property to a pizza venture or start one of his own, for example, he said, the petition and amendments might limit his options.
“What becomes of the value of my property if my business fails? That’s where I’m getting into the property rights issue,” he said. “I’m probably speaking for all the people who are commercial property owners who aren’t here.”
Responsible Growth group member Nick Patch said writing regulations to protect property owners like Provost while preventing unwanted development would take time, and that’s why he urged selectmen to table the petition and amendments.
“We want to write this carefully so we don’t squeeze out the businesses that can make Ferrisburgh a thriving community,” Patch said.
Selectman Bob Jenkins said that by voting to deny the petition, planners and volunteers could start with a clean slate to come up with appropriate bylaws.
“They can go back and start from scratch,” Jenkins said, “which ... is what they’d like to do.”