Ferrisburgh prepared to fight anti-sprawl law

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard will work through the Legislature to soften Act 250’s new anti-sprawl Criterion 9L, said board chairwoman Loretta Lawrence last week after a board meeting.
The selectboard took that position after opposition in the Act 250 process from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), Addison County Regional Planning Commission, and Vermont Natural Resources Council — opposition based on 9L — caused auto dealer Tom Denecker in November to end his $350,000 deal to buy 35 acres of town-owned land at the intersection of Routes 7 and 22A.
Although some residents back 9L as a tool to fight sprawl, town officials remain upset by the new state law and ANR’s submission based on 9L that opposed Denecker’s plan for a new dealership on a 4.5-acre building envelope within that larger parcel.
The remaining 30-plus acres would have remained perpetually open under conservation easements, but the ANR and the regional planning commission maintained that the dealership would have been outside existing settlement patterns and could have triggered strip development along Route 7. 
Ferrisburgh real estate broker and town lister Carl Cole disagrees. He urged the selectboard to fight 9L at their Tuesday meeting last week. In an email to the Independent, Cole criticized the ANR’s interpretation of 9L, which the Legislature passed and took effect last year.
“Given the ANR’s position, anything on the edge of town (settled area) would be sprawl/strip development,” Cole wrote. “I don’t think this is what the Legislature had in mind. If it is what they had in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more anti-business, anti-job growth position for the state to take.”
Longtime Ferrisburgh Planning Commission Chairman Bob Beach also took issue with the ANR’s characterization of Denecker’s proposal — a 17,000-square-foot building sharing a driveway with the Agency of Transportation’s park-and-ride lot and including about 200 parking places — as sprawl.
“I don’t believe that fits the bill for strip zoning,” Beach said. “I certainly understand people’s viewpoints on what they like and they don’t like. It just feels like this was overruling the town’s opportunity for jobs and industry.”
Lawrence said Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, attended the board’s Jan. 6 meeting and agreed to put forward a bill to amend Criterion 9L. Details remain to be worked out, but the bill would contain “some type of language to lessen” 9L, Lawrence said.
She said the board was unanimous in its sentiment that 9L takes too much control away from towns, and that approaching the Legislature was the right tactic to deal with what she said has become an issue in other communities, including North Hero and Rutland.
“We have to go to Montpelier and start from the top,” Lawrence said.
Beach said towns and regional planning commissions together already have the tools to control development, and understand the local physical and economic landscapes better than state officials.
“I like the fact towns in Vermont have been able to have local control of their land development. And I like to try to support landowners,” Beach said. “My own vote is that I would like to have the town decide to have what happens along Route 7 based on the best practices of planning and zoning.”
On the other side of the fence, some residents believe 9L protects Ferrisburgh from encroaching sprawl from Chittenden County and unwanted chain-store and strip-mall development.
Resident Nick Patch opposed Denecker’s proposed dealership and noted Denecker instead purchased Shea Motors in Middlebury.
“It appears to me that the regulation worked as designed on the Denecker proposal. What would have been a sprawl-inducing proposal has now moved to an existing location in the Route 7 corridor. That is a positive outcome,” he said. “I encourage the selectboard of Ferrisburgh to allocate a moderate sum of money to hire a skilled planner to clarify what types of development would be appropriate at that site under 9L rather than waste time, energy and money fighting the new regulation.”
Patch said in a 2013 planning survey many residents were concerned about Route 7 sprawl (that survey is available on the town’s website and there are comments on both sides of the issue) and that the town is not prepared to protect itself from sprawl.
“Ferrisburgh is a town that is incredibly vulnerable to strip development, and at this point in time there is no political will on the selectboard to address it,” he said. “We desperately need 9L so that we don’t go irreparably down the road to unfettered sprawl in the Ferrisburgh Route 7 corridor.”
Resident Judy Chaves shares that opinion and said the board should focus on finding a good use for its land rather than fighting 9L.
“It’s important to make it clear that the Ferrisburgh selectboard does not speak for the whole town when voicing its negative opinion of Criterion 9L,” she said. “There are many of us in this town who are glad to see such a criterion added to Act 250, and who think that Ferrisburgh, with its long, vulnerable stretch of Route 7, is exactly the sort of town that 9L is written for and will ultimately benefit.”
Patch and Chaves are both members of Friends of Ferrisburgh for Responsible Growth — a group that unsuccessfully opposed recent proposals for a Dollar General store and a Champlain Oil Co. gas station, McDonald’s Restaurant and Jiffy Mart — but said they were not speaking for that group.
Beach said he understood how some could see those proposals and Denecker’s as “strip development.”
But he remains concerned about the larger implications of 9L.
“Are we suggesting that future growth is only going to happen where there is pre-existing settlement?” Beach said. “Or will pre-existing settlement patterns along these roadways be allowed to be expanded upon? Is Shelburne done from its potential growth on Route 7? Is Charlotte shut off from further growth on Route 7?”
Beach also said an extension of the Vergennes sewer system along Route 7 could happen “in a lifetime,” but until that occurs large-scale development would be limited by Ferrisburgh’s predominantly heavy, clay soils.
“The towns that have experienced growth along Route 7 have municipal sewer systems,” he said.
Ferrisburgh officials will also soon unveil a new town plan that they said does address the town’s 35-acre parcel and the rest of the Route 7 corridor.
Beach said he would wait until a final draft is ready to discuss details, but said proposed language for the town land would continue to allow commercial and industrial uses.
He and Lawrence said planners and selectboard members met and came away with a united front on the plan.
“We arrived at a consensus,” Lawrence said. “Both sides were quite pleased.”
She said the plan would lay the groundwork for zoning that would protect Ferrisburgh.
“I am very confident between the town plan and the zoning regulations it is addressed,” Lawrence said.
Beach said, as typically is the case, the new plan might not make everybody happy. But he said planners have worked hard to deal with Route 7, have listened to residents’ feedback, and will welcome more comment during upcoming public hearings.
“We have looked at the Route 7 corridor. It’s been probably the most important segment of the town. I would say we have looked at that segment the hardest because there has been the most public comment on it,” Beach said. “We hope that we have adequately viewed and left the opportunity for some things to happen on the Route 7 corridor.”
Still, some believe 9L is not only necessary, but also beneficial. One who does is Vermont Natural Resources Council head Brian Shupe.
“Criterion 9L supports a balanced approach to development in the state,” Shupe said. “It promotes development in and around our downtowns and villages. Where strip development has occurred in the past, 9L supports redeveloping sites to make them denser and less automobile dependent. And alongside less developed roadways, it discourages establishing and extending strip development.  This is clearly in the state’s best, long-term economic and environmental interest.”
Beach is unconvinced after seeing 9L’s effect on the Denecker plan.
“With that in place, I don’t know what would ever be allowed to happen there on that parcel of land,” he said. “It’s not about Denecker, I feel in some regards it’s more how the town gets to use their own land.”
Most can agree on one thing.  
“Certainly we’re a test case,” Lawrence said. “It’s on our radar, front and center.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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