Denecker’s Rt. 22A plan eyed as possible sprawl

FERRISBURGH — Issues of scenic impact and traffic came to the forefront at an Oct. 23 Act 250 hearing in the Ferrisburgh town office building that was devoted to Chevrolet dealer Tom Denecker’s plan to consolidate his two existing locations at a new site, the junction of Routes 7 and 22A.
Denecker is proposing to use 4.5 acres of a 34.91-acre parcel for a 17,500-square-foot dealership to house both sales and service operations, which are now separate at his nearby Ferrisburgh and Vergennes sites. The remaining 30-plus acres would be conserved, according to the application and as mandated by a series of existing easements.
He is contracted to pay $350,000 to the town of Ferrisburgh, which acquired the land from the Agency of Transportation. Ferrisburgh received the land as part of a complex deal that also led to the construction of the VTrans park-and-ride lot on and the move of the former Vergennes train depot to the site, as well as the conservation of most of the parcel.
The Oct. 23 hearing focused on conformity with the regional plan as well as aesthetics and traffic impact. But Denecker’s major hurdle could come on Dec. 5, when the District 9 Environmental Commission will hear testimony from opponents of the project based on a new Act 250 criterion, 9L.
That criterion, which took effect on June 1, 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.”
Two representatives of the Agency of Natural Resources attended the Oct. 23 hearing in order to obtain party status to comment on the issue of sprawl. One Ferrisburgh official on Oct. 23 said he believed the ANR was prepared to oppose the project.
Also awarded party status to comment on 9L was the Vermont Natural Resources Council. A VNRC representative said the group wants to “reinforce existing settlements and prevent strip development.”
Denecker told the Ferrisburgh selectboard in July that he did not believe his project should have to meet Criterion 9L because his application was dated in May before the law took effect.
But Act 250 District Coordinator Geoffrey Green ruled that that application was not complete and thus 9L applied, and Denecker said last month he chose not to waste time fighting that decision.
Instead, Denecker’s experts prepared a 27-page section of his Act 250 application that he said he believes addresses concerns that his proposal represents sprawl. They take the position that the dealership would continue the existing pattern of development in the northern end of Vergennes and that area in Ferrisburgh.
“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.”
SUPPORT offered
On Oct. 23, Denecker and his representatives, including project manager Clifford Collins of South Burlington firm Ruggiano Engineering Inc., answered questions from the Green and commissioners Barbara Otsuka, Amy Sheldon and Tom Wallace; heard questions and some criticism from Addison Regional Planning Commission senior planner Tim Bouton and neighbor Bob McNary; and received support from Ferrisburgh Selectman Steve Gutowski.
Gutowski reaffirmed the selectboard’s backing for the project that includes almost 300 parking spaces mostly behind the building and has already received all its local permits.
The application includes letters 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 project 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.
Collins also stated, “The city of Vergennes fully supports the project.”
In a later interview, Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said the Vergennes City Council has never officially backed Denecker’s proposal. But, Hawley said, aldermen are on record as willing to put before Vergennes voters the question of whether a sewer line should be extended to Denecker’s dealership.
“I think the city council by consensus … would entertain discussions of drafting of an agreement that would go before voters,” Hawley said. “Things are moving.”
Vergennes has a pending agreement with the state for a sewer extension to the relocated train depot, which officials hope to renovate and convert into a visitor center; that contract calls for a $108,000 tap-on fee. In the 1990s, city officials had opposed a proposed Stewart’s convenience store on the Denecker site.
McNary, who owns a home, 40 acres and a golf driving range across Route 7 from the site, criticized the project on aesthetic grounds.
McNary said the building, proposed to range in height from 25 feet at the front to 16 feet to the rear, was “completely out of character in size in this agricultural neighborhood,” was “double the size of any commercial or industrial” structure in the area, and would “overshadow the historic train depot.”
McNary added that, once passenger rail service is restored, tourists who stop at the train depot would be “smashed in the face” by the dealership.
Bouton also expressed concerns about tourists being greeted by a car dealership, asked for an easement to protect a wooded knoll that would serve to screen the development from Route 7 traffic, and wondered if the project would detract from Vergennes’ “Northern Gateway district” along North Main Street, which is Route 22A within city limits.
McNary added Denecker had “failed to take reasonable steps” to mitigate the project’s impact, and called the “cavalier attitude” of Denecker’s parent company, General Motors, “outrageous” because it refused to compromise on design elements.
Collins addressed the Northern Gateway question, noting the dealership conformed with Vergennes zoning in an area that already included one of Denecker’s outlets, zoning that permits car sales. He added that the knoll is already part of the roughly 30 acres of conserved land, but that extra restrictions would be no problem.
Denecker spoke to McNary’s GM issue, saying GM had already compromised on building color and lighting — agreeing to make most of the siding gray, not white, to abandon illuminated signs, and to use only motion-sensitive lights at night — and had never told him the company would be unwilling to make further adjustments.
“Bob, you need here to be specific,” he said, adding, “We would take that information to GM … There are other things that GM is amenable to. It comes down to reasonable.”
Green asked Denecker if further changes to colors were “a possible option.”
“We’ve already changed white to gray,” Denecker said. “If you have a reasonable request, this would be a good time to say.”
Denecker also pointed out his dealership would not be the largest building in the area. Country Home Products has a manufacturing, distribution and warehouse facility for its DR line of products about a quarter-mile south in Vergennes that is 42,876 square feet, according to Vergennes assessment data. That data also pegged the nearby Kennedy Brothers building on North Main Street at 17,270 square feet.
“We shouldn’t forget we have DR Trimmer,” Denecker said. “And that’s directly across the street.”
Denecker’s architects said the proposed dealership would have no undue adverse impact on scenic beauty. Their reasoning, in part, was that other commercial influences in the area mean it is not a “highly scenic” landscape. They also said they took many steps to minimize the project impact, including siting the building about 250 feet back from Route 22A and sharing a driveway with the park-and-ride lot.
Collins and traffic expert Jennifer Conley testified about traffic. Collins said “good visibility” from the park-and-ride driveway meant there are “no safety concerns.”
Collins said that once traffic between Denecker’s two existing sites, which now travels on the Route 22A, is subtracted, the net impact would small.
Conley said a July traffic study showed that amount of expected northbound traffic on Route 22A “does not meet the left-turn warrants” to show a dedicated left-turn lane should be created, and that the projected increased delay at the intersection of the state highways was about one second.
Conley said her assumptions were based on “full use” of the park-and-ride lot.
Bouton acknowledged that Conley “just addressed” some ACRPC questions, but said he remained concerned that increased traffic could pose a problem if a visitor center were to be established at the train depot.
He was also concerned about the dealership blocking a potential bike path. But Denecker’s representatives said an easement would not be a problem. McNary, a member of a local committee that studied potential bike path routes, said local officials had abandoned any route that would cross the acreage under discussion. Denecker said an easement on a small parcel across the road would be offered if necessary to help create a bike path on a different route.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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