Editorial: Sprawl in Quechee
Let’s be clear: The proposed multi-phase, multi-use development near the interstate exit in Quechee is sprawl. This is not a close call: The development would take place on mostly undeveloped land distant not only from existing growth centers but also from utilities such as sewer and water.
That is not to say that the development might not have benefits; it might create jobs, housing and shops that people need or want. The development itself might also be thoughtfully designed, both in terms of preserving open space and being physically attractive.
But sprawl is sprawl, which means not only that its benefits would be amplified were it to be shifted to a more appropriate location, but also that the problems it brings are of such a magnitude that it should not be encouraged. That’s not just a philosophical preference; it’s embedded in sound land-use policy.
Quechee Highlands, as the development has been named, is now being reviewed under Act 250, the state’s land-use law. Scott Milne, who owns the 168 acre property, has proposed a three-phase project, although only the first segment is under consideration. The first phase, to be built on 12.5 acres of the property off Route 4, would be a clustered mix-use development of 10 buildings, including one multi-unit 10,000-square-foot residential building, seven buildings with a total of 43,000 square feet of commercial space, and nine office buildings with 62,000 square feet.
To grasp the scope of the development, an analysis by Elizabeth Humstone undertaken at the behest of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, is helpful. The 120,000 square feet of construction in the first phase of the project would exceed all of the nonresidential construction that occurred in Quechee between 1998 and 2005 (the boom years before the recession) by 71 percent.
Nevertheless, the development twice received the unanimous blessing of the Hartford Planning Commission. Then again, the Planning Commission is responsible for judging how well development proposals conform to town plans, and Hartford has designated the Quechee exit as a gateway site suitable for development as a new growth center. Under that designation, a wide range of enterprises, including retail, would be conditionally permitted.
Here’s the problem, though: That part of the Hartford plan conflicts with the regional plan, which not only directs major development toward areas already developed — White River Junction or Quechee Village, in this case — but also discourages development at interstate exchanges, with the exception of travel-based services.
“The regional plan has made it clear that a high priority is maintaining a regional land use pattern of compact settlement separated by rural countryside and that this pattern must be protected and enhanced,” Humstone wrote in her analysis.
And when local plans conflict with regional plans, the regional plan takes precedence when evaluating major developments, according to Peter Gregory, executive director of Two Rivers-Ottauquechee, which has opposed the development as currently proposed.
The problem with sprawl is not just that it blights the landscape, although that is certainly a major consideration. It also undermines the economic health of nearby commercial centers, contributes to traffic problems and creates unnecessary burdens on town services by decentralizing demand for them.
Considering the development’s size and disadvantages, it should come as no surprise that not everybody in Hartford is enthusiastic about it. The Energy Commission was on the verge of opposing the development because it was, as one member noted, “completely against what the Energy Commission is supposed to be promoting in town.” The Selectboard dissuaded the commission, urging it to instead identify how the proposal conflicts with its goals and thereby assist the Act 250 Commission in suggesting aspects that need modification.
If the Energy Commission opposed what the Planning Commission had supported, warned Selectman Ken Parker, that might scare off future developers who would fear getting “blindsided.”
“It sends a very, very bad message out into the large community, whether it’s Vermont or New England, that Hartford’s a place to avoid,” he said.
Perhaps. Another message that might be sent out by opposition to Quechee Highlands is that Hartford welcomes the right kind of development, and that if you’re doing business in one of several areas where development is already concentrated, you won’t have to worry about the town undermining that by encouraging sprawl.