State official proposes uses for Ferrisburgh parcel

FERRISBURGH — Light industry with a retail component, especially a value-added agricultural venture, could be the best use for the 34.91-acre parcel the town of Ferrisburgh owns at the intersection at Routes 7 and 22A. That was the message that Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Noelle MacKay gave the Ferrisburgh selectboard at a meeting this past Wednesday.
MacKay presented to about 20 residents and local officials findings of research that included meetings with representatives of the agencies of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Transportation; the Natural Resources Board, which administers Act 250; the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC); and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
After two deals for the property have fallen through in the past two years, including car dealer Tom Denecker’s withdrawal this past fall during his Act 250 process because of problems with a new anti-sprawl criterion, 9L, MacKay said she focused on “options that might be able to meet multiple goals” on the parcel.
Those goals, she said, included conforming to Ferrisburgh and state regulations, notably Act 250, and finding Ferrisburgh a buyer for the property, now listed at $375,000, that would also then enhance tax revenue.
MacKay started with a note of optimism.
“We hear across the state all the time there is a need for industrial space,” she said.
MacKay said in honing in on what might pass regulatory muster, she also reviewed the Denecker application and a failed attempt to put a Stewart’s convenience store on the site in the 1990s. Stewart’s also withdrew its proposal in the face of Act 250 opposition.
As well as traffic and aesthetic concerns triggered by both proposals, she noted Denecker’s plan ran into opposition based on Criterion 9L, which took effect this past summer. MacKay described 9L as requiring proposals for Act 250 permits outside of “existing settlements” to make the most “efficient use” possible of the land involved and to demonstrate new projects will not encourage “strip development.”
MacKay then listed several possibilities for the land, including light industry or valued-added agricultural manufacturing, such as wineries or cheese-making operations, any of which could add a shop to lure visitors.
Such ventures, she said, would be easier to screen, thus preserving views in what is a designated Scenic Byway, and thus “meet your objectives and also go through the Act 250 criteria.”
MacKay also said such developments should take care to provide links to neighboring properties, a key provision within 9L.
“It’s looking at how you can design these areas,” she said, “looking at how it is in relationship to the train station, to the industrial areas over here, to the agriculture, to the views. And potentially there could be future development over here. And how could you design it so there is at least the option for some kind of even road, path or something there if you wanted to connect later on.”
MacKay said the town could even hire a consultant and do “pre-permitting” work with state agencies to pave the way for a potential buyer.
A multiple-use campus could also be possible, she said, with “clustered buildings, shared parking lots.”
Her message to the town and potential buyers was to meet “early and often” with state permitting agencies, which she said routinely were all willing to send representatives to a pre-permitting meeting to brainstorm ideas and ways around potential stumbling blocks.
“We’d really, really, really encourage people to come early,” MacKay said. “That just saves everyone time and money … We could help them identify issues up front. There’s a system set up. All the state agencies do that pre-application meeting.”
MacKay’s presentation earned some favorable reviews.
“I find what you propose as possibly going in there is exciting,” said Selectman Jim Warden.
MacKay also said that ACEDC Executive Director Robin Scheu told her people are “looking for sites” like Ferrisburgh’s. Scheu later in the week said there has been general interest in industrial sites in Addison County, and she has had at least one specific inquiry on the Ferrisburgh site.
But Scheu said a central financing problem has slowed new such projects locally, statewide and even nationally: Commercial appraisals are lagging behind construction values because the comparables available to appraisers are those from the depressed market of the past few years. As a result, under bank lending guidelines, what those institutions are willing to loan developers is not enough to finance most projects — unless developers have access to extra cash.
“It’s very difficult to do new construction unless there are deep pockets,” Scheu said.
MacKay also fielded questions about what the Denecker withdrawal and the impact of 9L could mean for the land’s future sales potential.
Town lister and local real estate broker Carl Cole asked if the right proposal would satisfy 9L, and MacKay said what she had researched would satisfy its requirements if properly designed.
MacKay also said an economic development bill now before the Vermont Senate would require enforcement agencies to clarify the intent of the new criterion.
“It doesn’t make changes yet, because the criteria is six months old,” MacKay said. “The language directs our agency, Natural Resources, and the Natural Resources Board to do much more robust education and outreach, much more broadly. Some of the issues as I’ve been digging in really relate to it’s a new criteria. People aren’t quite sure how it works. So some people are getting the advice, ‘Don’t do it.’ So we really need to do a better job in education, to go out and say, here’s how you can do it.”
Over time, she said, how the criterion works would also become clearer.
“The reality is if you read any Act 250 criteria, they’re pretty broad. What’s happened over the years is through case law that has become defined,” MacKay said. “We don’t want this to be seen as an impediment to anything. This is about efficient use of land; our infrastructure, which we don’t have a lot of money to fix anymore; and how do we really do development that meets our broader land-use goals.”
She said the plan was to develop draft language and start training personnel from regional planning commissions and development corporations on 9L by the end of April.
Resident Judy Chaves said not all in Ferrisburgh see Criterion 9L as a problem in marketing the town land; rather, it is a protection for town resources.
“9L is not just a hoop for us to jump through. It’s going to help us get something there that is more appropriate for the site,” Chaves said. “9L is not just an obstacle we have to get around. I think it is going to benefit what is going to go in there, ultimately.”
Still, MacKay said, the 9L criterion could limit options. Resident and conservation commission member Craig Heindel asked MacKay if it was her sense from Act 250 officials that “they think it’s got to be industrial and not retail-commercial” on the site.
“If it is something that really meets industrial use, they’ve been viewing it differently,” MacKay said. “Do I think that this site could be designed to have a mix of industrial-commercial-retail? Probably smaller level retail with commercial. I think you could do it. But you would have to have probably a landscape architect that really understood kind of denser, compact development instead of just putting a box up with a lot of parking.”
And she said the Denecker proposal was probably in the Natural Resource Board’s crosshairs.
“People were trying to set case law in this case early on. And I think this was a project they picked out as something they could do that with,” MacKay said. “I think it would be more difficult to meet the requirements of 9L with a car dealership than with some of the other things suggested.”
She said the case also sent a message to state officials.
“It was a really important lesson for us,” MacKay said. “We did some work with the district coordinators for Act 250 and the regional planning commissions, but we needed to go to municipalities, the broader development community, and their consultants, that’s in the works now.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.

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