Development Off Exit 4 Seen As A Test Of Farmland Preservation
A developer’s plans for land near the Randolph Exit on Interstate 89 could have statewide implications according to environmental groups. The property proposed for the development includes high quality agricultural land.
Randolph developer Jesse Sammis wants to attract mixed-use development to 173 acres he owns just west of Exit 4.
If completed, The Green Mountain Center would include 274 residential units, a 180-room hotel and conference center, a fitness and recreation center, a visitor center with retail space and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and light manufacturing space.
The plan totals 1.1 million square feet of constructed space.
The District Three Environmental Commission visited the site Friday morning before convening a preliminary hearing on the plan at a nearby inn owned by Sammis.
No construction is currently proposed. For now, the commission’s deliberations are limited to a partial review of the impact of the proposal on prime agricultural lands, and whether it conforms with local and regional plans.
Future construction at the site would be subject to a full Act 250 review, which would weigh additional issues such as traffic, aesthetics and storm water runoff.
Normally, a local development proposal would not attract the attention of a statewide environmental policy group like the Conservation Law Foundation, but this is different, according to Sandra Levine, an attorney for CLF.
"The scale of this project and its location, out of town? No, there has not been a project of this scale on a very valuable farmland resource." - Sandra Levine, Conservation Law Foundation
“The scale of this project and its location, out of town? No, there has not been a project of this scale on a very valuable farmland resource,” says Levine.
One key issue the commission will weigh is whether the project can use off-site mitigation as a way to compensate for the loss of 71 acres of primary agricultural land.
If certain criteria are met, the developer can pay a fee which is used to preserve farmland elsewhere. Otherwise agricultural land would have to be preserved onsite, which could mean significantly scaling back the development plan.
Peter Van Oot, an attorney for the developer, argues that nearly half of the primary agricultural land on the property will be preserved.
Van Oot says the project should be allowed to use off-site mitigation to make up for the rest.
Off-site mitigation was designed to make it easier to develop land which local and regional plans identify as designated for growth, or in other appropriate circumstances.
"It has adequate municipal infrastructure and shows some of the tenets of a designated growth area." - Peter Van Oot, an attorney for the developer
Although the Exit 4 parcel is not a designated growth area, Van Oot says the fact there is already development located adjacent to the land shows growth is occurring there, and the project is appropriate for off-site mitigation.
“This is an area surrounded by growth, by mixed commercial uses,” he says. “It has adequate municipal infrastructure and shows some of the tenets of a designated growth area.”
Environmental groups say allowing this project to use off-site mitigation to compensate for developing primary agricultural land would set a precedent that could result in other farmland being paved over for projects elsewhere.
“If this is an appropriate circumstance, every setting in Vermont is an appropriate circumstance,” says Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
"We need to create some jobs here that we don't have and find a way for our young people who are graduating to be able to settle here and live here." - Select Board Chairman Larry Richburg
Shupe is also concerned about the economic impact of the proposal on downtown Randolph.
“It’s going to have a tremendous potential impact on the economic viability of the village over time, and that’s not consistent with very clear policies in the regional plan,” says Shupe.
The plan for Exit 4 went through a long public process and concerns about the impact on downtown Randolph led to limits on retail development at the site.
The plan has already been approved by the Randolph Development Review Board, and is supported by the select board.
"We are not against development. We are against the scale of this development." - Jessica Taffet, Exit 4 Open Space
“We need to create some jobs here that we don’t have and find a way for our young people who are graduating to be able to settle here and live here,” says Select Board Chairman Larry Richburg.
A recently formed citizens group in the area has a different view. Members of the group Exit 4 Open Space, which opposes developing the farmland, were among the crowd that attended the hearing on the plan.
“We are not against development. We are against the scale of this development,” says the group’s Jessica Taffet.