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Hartford Commission OKs Plan Changes

Hartford — Despite concerns that the town was being strong-armed by regional planners over the future of the area around Exit 1 on Interstate 89 in Quechee, the Planning Commission voted Monday night to endorse changes to the town’s Master Plan.

One resident who owns property near the interstate exit said he was concerned the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission was pressuring the town to make the changes to the plan.

“They are just holding a stick over the town of Hartford and are saying they are going to withhold funds unless you do what we want you to do. It is like we are being punished,” said resident Wayne Punt, who owns land near the Interstate 89 south on-ramp across from the Quechee Mobil station. “They are saying what you can and can’t do in your own town, and are saying we won’t give you monies for this because you don’t want to go along with what we see for your town. It’s not their town; it’s ours.”

Two of the more pronounced changes being considered are ending the “growth center” designation for the area near the Exit 1 interchange and eliminating retail stores as a “primary use” in the area.

The Master Plan acts as a guideline for growth and development in the town. Although it’s not required by law, the town’s Master Plan has to conform to the regional one in order to qualify for certain regional and state grants or to levy impact fees on developers.

Hartford’s Planning Commission has agreed to remove the Exit 1 interchange as a growth center, Riddle said, though he acknowledged that hadn’t been the case earlier. The Planning Commission in 2012 approved the proposed Quechee Highlands mixed-use development for a 168-acre parcel near the exit.

“This board went before (the regional commission) and tried to convince them that the (town’s) Master Plan should stand,” Riddle said during the meeting. “We gave it the best shot. ... There has been a little give and take on both sides.”

Planning Commission member Dennis Brown expressed unease Monday night with the dynamic between the town and the regional commission.

“I believe what Mr. Punt is saying is all true. We are having our arms twisted here,” he said. “I am a frustrated commissioner.”

Scott Milne, one of the developers behind the Quechee Highlands proposal, said he hopes the town isn’t being bullied.

“If it is a collaborative effort, it is a good,” Milne said after the meeting. “If it is someone holding a gun to another’s head, someone should go back and take another look.”

Despite some misgivings, the Planning Commission voted unanimously after 90 minutes of discussion at the Municipal Building to approve the amendments to the Master Plan.

Other changes included adding categories to the land use plan and updating recent land use trends.

The Master Plan must now go before the Selectboard for two more public hearings, before a final vote is cast on the 14-chapter document, said Bruce Riddle, chairman of the Hartford Planning Commission.

Two Rivers opted not to approve the town’s 2012 Master Plan last summer, in part because of the Quechee growth center designation, which doesn’t comply with the regional plan that directs development to existing downtowns and discourages it near interstate exchanges.

If and when the town’s Master Plan is approved by the regional commission, the town plans to seek a grant to study the Exit 1 interchange.

“What we have to do is come to a better agreement as to what can go there and how it would look,” Riddle said.

Town Planner Matt Osborn said that even if the Master Plan changes are adopted, the type of development allowed around Exit 1 won’t change until the town’s zoning laws are revised to reflect the Master Plan.

“I can’t predict” when the town will do an update on the zoning regulations, Osborn said prior to the meeting.

The changes to the Master plan “do influence Act 250,” Planning and Development Director Lori Hirshfield said. She said Act 250 officials look at what the town’s Master Plan says when evaluating developments.

She said the town’s Planning Commission also references the plan — as well as zoning laws — when approving plans for development projects.

The fact that the regional commission does not regard Exit 1 area as a “growth center” was a key factor last year — along with traffic — in the District 3 Environmental Commission’s denial of an Act 250 permit for the first phase of the proposed Quechee Highlands project.

The developer of the proposed Quechee Highlands Development, B&M Realty, appealed the ruling in Superior Court.

The changes to the Master Plan will not impact the Quechee Highlands appeal because it has already received town approval, Riddle said Monday night.

“It won’t be held hostage, is that correct?” resident Joe Trottier asked.

Riddle said he would be “shocked” if that was true.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

CORRECTION

Bruce Riddle is the chairman of the Hartford Planning Commission. His first name was inadvertently dropped from an earlier version of this story.