Brandon takes steps to build economic base

BRANDON — The foundation is being laid in Brandon to nurture local economic development.
There are signs of possible movement in attracting potential investors and filling some large, empty industrial buildings, including decisions regarding improvements to the town zoning ordinance and the water system.
The newly formed Brandon Economic Development Ad-Hoc Executive Committee has made a key zoning amendment one of its first priorities. The executive committee met on Jan. 5 and quickly passed three motions that would become part of their recommendations to the Brandon selectboard.
One of those motions was to support the planning commission’s recommendation to amend the town land use ordinance regarding non-conforming uses. The committee approved a change that would extend the amount of time a building approved for a non-conforming use could sit empty and resume business with a non-conforming use. For instance, the Nexus electronics building on Pleasant Street is zoned for industrial use even though it sits in the middle of a residential area, which is a non-conforming use. The building has been empty since Nexus went out of business in the summer of 2008. The current ordinance states that if another non-conforming use is not resumed within one year — in this case an industrial use — it would not be allowed at that location.
This amendment, which was approved by Brandon selectmen at their Jan. 13 meeting, will create more economic development opportunity in buildings with non-conforming uses that have lost tenants, like the Nexus building and also the Tubbs furniture plant. At 134,000 square feet, the Tubbs building is a non-conforming use in a high-density, multi-use district that only allows buildings up to 5,000 square feet.
As Selectman Mitch Pearl explained, Vermont state policy is that towns should phase out non-conforming uses so other uses can come in quickly and fill the space.
“In a healthy economy, that makes a lot of sense,” Pearl said. “But in a down economy like this, if you don’t re-open within a year, the use is discontinued. There will be businesses that will go out of business that will take longer than a year to get going again.”
The new amendment extends that time to four years to retain a building’s grandfathered status. Planning Commission Chair Ethan Swift said that the town of Middlebury’s ordinance also goes with a four-year time frame for non-conforming uses.
“There are a couple of potential development projects that would benefit from amending the bylaws,” said Selectman Richard Baker. “It’s not spot zoning because this is long overdue. Some investors have been doing due diligence on our town on certain properties and we want to take away any impediment and communicate to the world at large that we are open for business.”
A public hearing on the proposed amendment will be warned for Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.
In another move that will only sweeten the pot for new businesses considering setting up shop in the industrial park, voters approved an item at the Jan. 11 annual meeting of the Brandon Fire District authorizing $300,000 in capital repair and replacement of existing water lines on Grove, Maple and Union streets.
The work will be paid for using a combination of local and federal funds.
Of particular interest is the planned replacement of an aging six-inch water main with a 12-inch main on Grove Street, which is Route 7 from Champlain Street to Arnold District Road to Park Village.
For years, the 128-foot, 750-gallon water tower near the industrial park satisfied fire suppression requirements of the Brandon Fire Department for firefighting at the industrial park and the former Brandon Training School, now Park Village. Baker said the new main will improve the flow of water to Park Village and the industrial park off Arnold District Road. The water tower will be obsolete, although it will continue to be used by cell phone companies for antenna placement, for which the Brandon Water District receives lease payments.
“This will make the area more attractive to potential investors,” Baker said.
The Economic Development Ad-Hoc Executive Committee also asked the selectboard to approve the establishment of an economic development committee, which the board did at its Jan. 13 meeting. It was a move at least two years in the making, and results are already being seen.
“We have a group of hardcore, dedicated individuals and I hope they will continue to put forth a great effort, and I think it will benefit the whole town,” Baker said, adding that it was the executive committee that pushed for the non-conforming use ordinance change.
“We’ve known about it, but that is the beauty of having a committee, because they can have a more open dialogue about this stuff,” he said. “We intended to fix it in the zoning re-write, but the executive committee came forward and said that we can’t afford to wait that long.”
Many local officials are saying that Brandon is finally hanging out a shingle that says, “Open for business.”

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