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Exit 4 Development Sparks Contentious Hearing

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VPR/Steve Zind
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Developer Jesse Sammis (second from right) and lawyers for both sides confer with District 3 Environmental Commission members before Friday's hearing.

The District 3 Environmental Commission held what it had believed would be a final hearing Friday on a proposal for a large development at the Randolph exit of Interstate 89.  

But after a contentious proceeding the commission has decided to hold another hearing.

The hearing proved the most confrontational of the three held so far, much of it centering on how much information the developer is obliged to provide.

The commission’s review is a partial one, concentrating on the impact of the 172 acre development on prime agricultural soils and its conformance with local and regional plans.

The plan has drawn statewide attention and is being opposed in the hearings by Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.  The groups see this as test case in efforts to preserve prime agricultural land.

A local group called Exit 4 Open Space, which has been given "friend of the commission" status, has also offered testimony.

"You are not being given evidence upon which you can make any affirmative finding" - Attorney L. Brooke Dingledine to the commission.

Following two earlier hearings, the commission asked developer Jesse Sammis to submit a revised plan that preserved more prime farmland. 

Sammis representatives say their latest revisions are a response to the concerns of both the commission and opponents.

Landscape architect Robert White, hired by Sammis to help revise the plan, led the commission and a large audience gathered for the hearing through the changes he made.

White says his plan relocates buildings and eliminates parking areas to reduce the boundaries  of the development.

He said the result sets aside significant additional prime agricultural land while preserving all aspects of the original development.

But a central issue in the hearing was the admissibility of White’s presentation.

Sandra Levine, the lawyer for Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, argued that White’s presentation was new information, submitted well beyond a mid-August deadline set by the commission.

“Our witnesses came prepared to respond to what was filed in August,” Levine said, contending that opponents were given no time to examine White’s information and prepare a response.

Levine requested that the developer pay the costs of bringing the witnesses back for a future hearing to respond to the information submitted by White.

L. Brooke Dingledine, a lawyer representing Exit 4 Open Space, pointed to the developer’s characterization of the plan as “conceptual” and not a representation of the actual project. She argued that as such it served no useful purpose in the commission’s deliberations.

“This is not evidence,” Dingledine told commission members. “This is the moment in time when the plan is supposed to be presented. You are not being given evidence upon which you can make any affirmative finding.”

Peter Van Oot, the lawyer representing Sammis argued the information presented by White was simply in support of earlier documents filed with the commission.

He said at this stage details about where buildings will be located within the boundaries of the development aren't critical to the commission's deliberations.

Van Oot said the most important information centers on the developers efforts, “to retain the agricultural lands and the most productive agricultural lands outside of those development areas in a non-fragmented way.”

Van Oot said when and if actual construction is proposed for the site, it will be subject to a full Act 250 review.

"This is our opportunity to learn the commission's concerns, to learn the parties' concerns, and address that moving forward" Peter Van Oot, attorney for developer Jesse Sammis.

"This is our opportunity to learn the commission’s concerns, to learn the parties’ concerns, and address that moving forward," Van Oot said.

As envisioned, the development would include light industrial, residential units and office space in addition to a hotel and state visitor center.

Members of the commission did not object to White’s testimony and commission chair Tim Taylor said it would be taken “with a big grain of salt.”

Taylor offered to give opponents additional time to respond to the information.

The commission took up two other issues at the hearing, including the impact of retail activity at the visitor center on downtown Randolph business.

The hearing came to a dramatic and abrupt close as the commission was considering whether some of the development might be moved to other local properties owned by Sammis.

When Dingledine attempted to question Sammis and present information on that question, Van Oot's strong objections led commission members to adjourn to the hallway for a discussion with the lawyers.

Taylor then adjourned the meeting.

Another hearing will be scheduled in the near future.

In addition to strenuous objections from each side’s lawyers, there were occasional exclamations from the audience.

“I realize this is emotional,” Taylor said at one point, in response to an audience member’s frustration that non-parties weren’t able to ask questions. “We’re all here as Vermonters, we’re all concerned about agricultural soils.”

Taylor has sometimes challenged lawyers and presenters for going beyond the limited scope of hearings.

At other times he's ignored objections and let individuals speak.  

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