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Denecker plan, land sale could hinge on new Act 250 criterion

FERRISBURGH — A new criterion of Act 250 presents a key hurdle for auto dealer Tom Denecker and his plans to consolidate his operations on 34.91 acres at the junction of Routes 7 and 22A. That new criteria, which will be part of the Act 250 hearing on Oct. 23, will require Denecker to prove his proposal does not contribute to “strip development,” or that it “minimizes the characteristics of strip development.”
Denecker agreed with the Ferrisburgh selectboard in October 2013 to pay $350,000 for the parcel, which lies next to the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Park-and-Ride lot. That deal has yet to close as Denecker seeks his permits.
Denecker is proposing to build a 17,500-square-foot dealership with extensive parking there. He will move all of his Denecker Chevrolet operations to the one site — sales are now handled at the intersection of Monkton Road and Route 7 a half-mile south in Ferrisburgh, and service just down the road on North Main Street in Vergennes.
Ferrisburgh officials are happy about a deal that will not only bring sales proceeds, but also, according to a rough estimate provided by town workers on Wednesday, could add around $1.5 million to Ferrisburgh’s grand list.
“We hope that after this hearing that application will move quickly and Mr. Denecker can get going on his project,” said Ferrisburgh selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence. “We’re still excited about the whole project.”
Lawrence said she believes the selectboard will continue to grant Denecker as much time as needed to meet the conditions of the sale, which include obtaining permits, and added residents did not object to Denecker’s proposal as he obtained a town permit.
But the new hurdle under Act 250, Criterion 9(L), states, in part, that, “the applicant must show that any project outside of an existing settlement: … ii. (I) Will not contribute to strip development, or (II) if the project is ‘confined to’ existing strip development, it incorporates infill and minimizes the characteristics of strip development.”
Denecker told the Ferrisburgh selectboard in July that he did not believe his project should have to meet Criterion 9(L) because his application was dated May 14. But Act 250 District Coordinator Geoffrey Green ruled that the application was not complete by June 1, and Denecker said this week he chose not to spend time fighting that decision.
“It would have taken an ungodly amount of time,” Denecker said. “We took the path of least resistance.”
Instead, Denecker’s experts prepared a 27-page section of the Act 250 application that he believes addresses the new stipulation.
“Honestly, I think my engineering firm and the landscape architects have done and will do a great job,” Denecker said. “They’ve done a great job explaining to Act 250 that we are infill to Vergennes.”
Among the points the application makes are that Denecker’s dealership would:
• Share an existing access to the VTrans Park-and-Ride lot.
• Tie into existing infrastructure, including water lines and the shared drive, plus existing and proposed sidewalks and walking and biking trails.
• Coordinate with the VTrans lot on parking, lighting and design efforts.
• Use a design set back far from the road that conserves land along Routes 7 and 22A, thus preventing sprawl. His development would make use of only 4.5 of the 34.91 acres, conserving the rest.
• Make use of natural topography to screen features from travelers along Route 7, preserving the natural “gateway” appearance of the area.
• Continue the existing pattern of development in the northern end of Vergennes and that area in Ferrisburgh.
Developments in the area in recent years include the VTrans lot and the move of the former city train depot to it in Ferrisburgh, plus a VELCO substation and new police station in Vergennes. There are also a number existing commercial ventures in the city and on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh. The application states Denecker’s dealership would be “contiguous with the existing development at the northern ‘Gateway’ to Vergennes.”
Still, Denecker acknowledges uncertainty entering the Oct. 23 hearing, which will include an 8:30 a.m. site visit followed by a 9:30 a.m. gathering at the Ferrisburgh town office building.
To his knowledge, his project is the first to be evaluated under the new criterion.
“I don’t know what to expect,” he said, adding, “I’m just hoping we can prove our case and have them understand it and then move on.”
Denecker’s application also cites a July traffic study that indicated traffic would not increase because trips between Denecker’s existing two sites would be eliminated. That study said a left-turn lane into the dealership from Route 22A would not be necessary.
Letters are included from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Division of Historic Preservation and the University of Vermont’s Consulting Archaeology Program either supporting the application or stating there were no relevant issues. A letter from the Department of Environmental Conservation states there are no wetlands to be dealt with that require state permits.
Vergennes-Panton water will serve the site, and official plans call for an onsite septic system. Denecker said he has continued to discuss with Vergennes officials an extension of a city sewer line. But, he said, he does not want the city to jump through any hoops — a citywide vote would be required to approve an extension, for example — without more clarity from the Act 250 process.
If all goes well on Oct. 23, Denecker said Act 250 officials told him he might have a permit in hand within two months. That timing could mean a new building — one that would allow Denecker to meet a directive by parent company General Motors that dealerships should have sales and service at the same location — by the end of next year.
“I have to believe that spring of 2015 would be ground-breaking, and I was told that it is basically a 30-week project,” he said.
Therefore, a lot hinges on Oct. 23, for both Denecker and Ferrisburgh.
“October 23 is going to give us a pretty fair idea of what is going to go on,” Denecker said.
Denecker also reflected on how much time and money has gone into the effort — in July he told the Ferrisburgh selectboard he had already sunk $150,000 into permitting costs.
“We wrote our purchase-and-sales agreement in early October 2013. It will be a year and two weeks or so when the hearing comes about,” Denecker said. “I don’t even want to say how much money I’ve spent.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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