City eyeing sewer extension policy

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council last week revisited an issue that has cropped up often in the past two decades — the extension of city sewer service outside city lines. The council’s discussion was prompted by another in what Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley describes as a series of calls on the topic.
This latest inquiry came from a real estate expert interested in the Ferrisburgh property across Route 7 from Vergennes being marketed by auto dealer Tom Denecker — who has himself often dialed Hawley’s number to talk sewer.
Hawley said Shelburne resident Alan Bates — who according to his LinkedIn profile is a “commercial real estate investment manager” and the principal of Connecticut firm Barrack Hill Capital LLC — called to ask if sewer service could be extended to that property for a new concept.
“He feels the highest and best use is a restaurant,” said Hawley, adding that a restaurant would require more septic capacity than the soils on the site would allow.  
Hawley said such questions are not unusual.
“I get these telephone calls. I get them all the time,” he said.
The problem is all Hawley has to rely on when he fields such calls is what city residents approved in 1994, when Vergennes and Ferrisburgh officials came up with a template on how the city could be paid for sewer extensions.
That proposal was specific to two parcels: one of 45 acres at the junction of Routes 7 and 22A now mostly owned by Ferrisburgh, out of which the Agency of Transportation park-and-ride lot was carved, and one of 40 acres that ran along Route 7 south from the railroad tracks.
Essentially, the deal proposed to share equally between the two communities all new property tax revenue from development supported by new city sewer lines stretching into Ferrisburgh.
That policy also forbids city sewer service to support residential uses, and said it could not hook up to “gasoline service stations, convenience stores, and mega wholesale/retail stores.”
Ferrisburgh voters said no, but Vergennes voters said yes, and city officials have treated that vote as a de facto policy since, even if they have at times said yes or at least maybe. The council was ready to negotiate with Denecker for sewer service to the Route 7/22A parcel when he hoped to build there, twice in the past aldermen endorsed sewer service for industrial projects that did not pan out, and a sewer line now serves the relocated former city rail station that was moved to a site next to the park-and-ride lot.
Hawley said, however, he wouldn’t mind if the council gave him new marching orders after all this time.
“This is something that was voted on 21 years ago,” he said.
Hawley raised the issue at the council’s Dec. 15 meeting, and Mayor Bill Benton said council members concluded it was time to take a look. (Despite the system’s peak overflow issues, the sewer plant typically runs under capacity.)
“The consensus was we all agreed the current policy that is 21 years old, that it discusses specific parcels of land and specifically prohibited uses, and is outdated,” Benton said. “And we could continue looking at extensions on a one-by-one basis, but that probably wouldn’t be the best thing for the city.”
As well as potential revenue, the issue of what should or should not be allowed will be a critical part of the discussion.
Hawley said at the meeting Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly said she was concerned about creating unwanted competition for downtown, while Alderman Michael Daniels said more businesses around Vergennes might benefit all in the area.
Benton said in an interview later in the week that the restaurant question itself highlighted how difficult it might be to develop a policy.
“(It) would require more discussion,” Benton said. “Personally I could see where a certain type of restaurant could be in direct competition with downtown, and we certainly don’t want to jeopardize the fragile economy we have.”
On the other hand, he said, in some cases being known as a food destination can help all local eateries.
“If it’s a Denny’s, I don’t know. If it’s a standalone, single-owner, really unique kind of restaurant there could be a way that it is compatible with our downtown and our economy,” Benton said. “And there are ways it’s just the antithesis of it. That’s where you’ve got to be really careful.”
As it stands now, Benton said the next step is more homework before revisiting the issue sometime early next year.
“We asked Mel to do a little background research in terms of some more current sewer extension guidelines in other communities and put together a little package of information, and we would make it an agenda item after the first of the year and probably try and do some type of an update that reflects our feelings and today’s economy,” he said.
Then, Benton said, residents will have the final call.
“Anything will require a vote of the citizens, which is great,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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