Ferrisburgh selling land, town officials upset by Act 250 process

FERRISBURGH — After a second potential buyer pulled out, the Ferrisburgh selectboard has put the town’s 34.91-acre parcel next to Vergennes back on the market, four years after the board originally sought a buyer.
Town officials remain upset with the Act 250 process and a new law that prompted auto dealer Tom Denecker to walk away from a $350,000 deal to buy the land.
The board decided on Dec. 2 to relist the property for sale with Burlington commercial real estate firm Redstone and broker Duncan Harris. Board Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence confirmed this week the asking price was reset at $375,000, as it had been before Denecker and Ferrisburgh struck a deal about a year ago.
Lawrence said Harris remains optimistic the property is marketable despite having a second deal in two years fall through.
“There has already been some interest in the property. This is a good sign,” Lawrence said.
But after Denecker — who in July told the selectboard he had already spent more than $100,000 on the project — stepped away from his dealership proposal, some questioned the property’s marketability.
Specifically, they wonder what might be acceptable to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) under a new Act 250 criterion, 9L, which is designed to combat sprawl.
The Legislature passed 9L last winter, and it took effect, according to Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, in October once the ANR completed writing guidelines.
For some, the question becomes what a prospective buyer can do with the land, which lies at the intersection of Routes 7 and 22A.
That is what Lanpher said in an interview last week and what some town officials, including lister and real estate broker Carl Cole and Selectman Jim Warden, said, according to Dec. 2 selectboard minutes.
“Ferrisburgh still owns this property. Going forward with or without Tom, what can or cannot happen with 9L with that piece of property is going to be important as they promote that area for sale,” Lanpher said.
In a Nov. 6 letter to the town, Denecker wrote, “Fulfilling the condition of receiving the Act 250 permit for the proposed project in a timely manner, that would not impose unduly burdensome conditions, cannot be achieved.”
As well as the ANR, the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) and the Vermont Natural Resources Council all opposed Denecker’s project based on 9L.
Last month, ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee said the commission’s Act 250 committee felt it had to oppose Denecker’s proposed dealership based on the ANR’s 9L guidelines. He told the Independent that the 9L guidelines are “written very broadly” and “capture all commercial activity” and thus could be problematic statewide.
“It’s a significant change, and I do think it has the potential to have broad impacts,” Lougee said.
Lanpher said the Vermont Natural Resources Board, which administers Act 250, “couldn’t point her to a project” that had been approved after being opposed by a regional planning commission.
Lanpher also said she is “starting to hear” that 9L could become a larger issue. After her Ferrisburgh constituents contacted her, she talked to the head of the Vermont Natural Resources Board and also reached out to her fellow lawmakers to find out if similar problems have cropped up.
She discovered that the resources board chairman is set to meet with citizens in South Hero with a 9L concern; she plans to attend that meeting to learn more.
“I’m not convinced yet, but I would like to find out if it is (an issue). Everyone agrees we would like to preserve Vermont’s landscape. We don’t want the sprawl,” Lanpher said. “But then I need to find out, being from a rural situation, if what makes sense for Burlington, South Burlington, maybe Winooski, maybe doesn’t fit so well in Ferrisburgh.”
Lawrence said in an email that the selectboard hopes other local lawmakers will join Lanpher in looking into the 9L question.
“The selectboard is hopeful that our local senators and representatives will rally around our local governing boards and push for changes to the 9L ruling. Representative Diane Lanpher came to a board meeting and expressed her disappointment with the Denecker withdrawal and with the new 9L legislation,” Lawrence wrote. “The board was most appreciative of Diane’s support.”
Lanpher and local officials also questioned specifics in how Denecker was treated and in the ANR’s submission in opposition to his proposal.
Lanpher noted Denecker’s application was first filed in May — before 9L was scheduled to take effect. She wondered why it was not grandfathered, a concern she said she brought to the Natural Resources Board. 
“The new rules, 9L, took effect, from what I understand, Oct. 18,” Lanpher said. “This application was in months before. My feeling … is he had his application in before this rule was in effect. He’s already spent an enormous amount of money, and just in my own personal opinion, I did not think it was fair to hold him to this new standard.”
Specifics on the ANR’s six-page 9L submission to the District 9 Environmental Commission, which was hearing Denecker’s application before the withdrawal, also came under fire.
The submission described the site in this manner: “Directly across Route 7 from the site is a large agricultural operation. Directly across Route 22A from the site is a forested parcel.”
Lawrence said the nearest farm is on Botsford Road, which runs parallel to and about a half-mile west of Route 7.
“This is not an accurate depiction. Across Route 7 is a miniature golf course and antique shop. There is no agricultural operation. I would suggest that ANR come out to the site, with their eyes open this time, for a visit and walk the property and see what really is surrounding the site. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the neighborhood,” she said.
As for the south side of Route 22A, there are woods flanking the roughly 40,000-square-foot Country Home Products plant and shielding Meigs Road from Route 7, but again Lawrence saw a different picture.
“I am truly dumbfounded as to where ANR came up with this language,” Lawrence said. “There may be some tall weeds along the roadside and in the area. However, there is no forest. Seriously.”
Lanpher said Cole had expressed to her similar criticisms about the ANR document, and she, too, was puzzled.
“Someone would have to convince me what they’re talking about, because I’m not seeing that description there,” she said.
The ANR submission also expresses a concern that a proposed Vergennes sewer extension to Denecker’s dealership, one that could not have been done without a citywide vote, would have triggered sprawl:
“The City of Vergennes does not currently have a sewer service boundary in effect to limit extensions of the sewer beyond areas of existing settlement areas. Could a sewer extension to the project open up new lands for strip development?”
Lanpher, a former Vergennes City Council member, said given the council’s historic reluctance to extend sewer, such a concern was “a stretch.”
“Under the given landscape of the Vergennes City Council and sewer capacity, I wouldn’t see it today as a very likely (outcome). I was actually quite surprised that Denecker was able to work with the city to get that extension,” Lanpher said. “That is, as you know, not an easy thing.”
The ANR also stated a concern that the dealership itself could trigger further strip development at a site bounded on two sides by state highways, a third by a church, and a fourth by an Agency of Transportation park-and-ride lot:
“The tendency for car dealerships (and other purveyors of large order goods) to cluster near one another is supported by (Harold) Hotelling’s Law and Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory … If one dealership is permitted at the project’s site, could future similar commercial developments also be approved along Route 7 and result in strip development?”
Lanpher wondered if that concern applied at that site in rural Addison County.
“I’d like to see where they’re getting that from,” she said.
Town officials’ frustration can be seen in the Dec. 2 minutes. Cole was described as saying, “this is not the way the state should act if it truly is interested in creating jobs and encouraging businesses.”
And, the minutes noted, Selectman Steve Gutowski compared the Denecker Act 250 process to how the Public Service Board handles solar proposals: “Steve Gutowski said it was difficult to swallow when solar projects are approved at the state level, without any input from the towns, and then have the state turn around and tell the town it cannot develop its own property.”
Lanpher said ANR officials possibly are “just overly, intensely interpreting” the new 9L, and that lawmakers “are going to have to get this straightened out for the future.”   
“We had a project that seemed like the community and towns were supporting, and it’s a local man,” Lanpher said, “and it’s just very unfortunate that it had to run into the opening days of 9L.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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