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Hartford, Commission Divided Over Development

Hartford — The proposal by a prominent Upper Valley businessman to build an office and retail center on land near the Interstate 89 exit along Route 4 has created a divide between the town of Hartford and the regional planning commission to which it belongs.

Differing interpretations over whether the 168-acre parcel in Quechee should be designated a “growth center” have also kept the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission from approving the town’s most recent master plan. The lack of approval precludes Hartford from certain benefits, such as downtown designations, which can be used to bring more grant money to the town.

It all started, though, with a special zoning district, created in 2005 and called the Quechee Interstate Interchange, which was ostensibly meant to keep gas stations and rest stops away from the Route 4 corridor while adding protection for wildlife corridors and natural resources, according to town officials.

The town’s residents “don’t want it to be truck stops,” said Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s Planning and development director. “They don’t want it to be high-rise buildings.”

The proposed Quechee Highlands development would include 120,000 square feet of retail stores and residential units, and is being spearheaded by Scott Milne, the owner of Milne Travel American Express and co-owner of B&M Realty. The proposed project near Interstate 89’s Exit 1 needs approval from the District 3 Commission, which has jurisdiction over significant property developments in the area under Vermont’s landmark Act 250 law.

The last two iterations of Hartford’s master plan, which was adopted in 2007 and again last year, includes the zoning district in which the proposed development would be located.

But the Quechee Highlands parcel, which sits between White River Junction and downtown Quechee, is not designated a growth center in the regional commission’s plan. In fact, the commission’s plan, also adopted last year, asserts that the site is not the right place for extensive development.

“This interchange is not an appropriate location for a growth center,” reads the regional plan, noting that White River Junction, which is 3.5 miles to the east, is meant for development and the Quechee Highlands project would move commercial activity out of the downtown center.

But the Hartford Planning Commission, which approved the Quechee Highlands application last year, disagrees.

“The Commission does not anticipate that the project will pull any business from existing village or growth centers since those centers have well established patterns of commerce,” wrote Bruce Riddle, the Planning Commission’s chairman, in a memo to the Act 250 board.

On the evening of March 20, members of both the Hartford Planning Commission and Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission met at the commission’s offices in Woodstock to discuss the dispute.

The meeting provided an opportunity for the two sides to hash out their differences, though no votes were taken. Peter Gregory, executive director of the regional commission, said his commission stated its issues about the zoning district in its 2007 approval of Hartford’s master plan.

“We were concerned,” he said.

Riddle responded that the concept of the Quechee Interstate Interchange was in the master plan when it was approved. Gregory countered that the regional plan still “stipulated against it.” “Given that this is a human document, that is adopted by people, that is the result of compromise, it can be the result of further compromise,” said Peter Merrill, a member of the Planning Commission.

The two panels will meet again on May 1 to hear from Hartford residents. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m., at the Municipal Building.

Creating the District

In the early 2000s, Chuck Wooster joined Hartford’s Master Plan Steering Committee, a 17-member body of town officials, commission members and residents. The committee was tasked with overhauling Hartford’s master plan, and held a series of public meetings to ask what Hartford residents wanted to see.

“They liked the balance that we had between the five villages, and also the undeveloped countryside around it,” said Wooster, a farmer who also served on the town’s Conservation Commission, and is chairman of the Selectboard. “Then it turned out that the zoning that we had in place was going to do the opposite.”

So the committee decided to make changes meant to shift emphasis away from creating suburban sprawl. Halfway through the process, the nascent Quechee Highlands project was introduced.

Under prior zoning laws, buildings on the parcel would have been less concentrated, and there would have been fewer protections for wildlife. In a memo sent to the Act 250 board, Hirshfield wrote, “The (Quechee Interstate Interchange) Zoning District is much more restrictive in how development occurs at this gateway” than the previous zoning.

“It was created expressly to prevent the kind of proliferation of fast food restaurants and gas stations at all the interchange districts down south,” said John Jalowiec, a former member of the Planning Commission who served during the creation of the new zoning district. He said the zoning district wasn’t created for Milne as much as it was meant to discourage those rest stops and fast food restaurants.

“I believe Quechee Highlands is a common-sense development,” Milne wrote in an email. “I am comfortable with the public legal arguments we have been forced to submit in light of Two Rivers’ opposition to the project.”

After multiple meetings with the public to gauge its views, the new zoning district passed in 2005. Two years later, it was assimilated into the town’s master plan, at about the time then-Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, came out in support of development near some of the state’s interstate interchanges — a marked departure from his predecessor, Democrat Howard Dean, who had largely opposed development near interstate exits.

The regional commission approved the Hartford master plan, zoning district and all, in 2007, though not without some reservations. Specifically, the regional commission worried about that new district, and how it is “not located near an existing downtown or village area.”

It did not find “major conflicts,” but did find “minor conflicts.”

The approval later states that the Act 250 board, in order to award a permit, must find a project in conformance with a town’s master plan and the regional commission’s plan, and when an application is found to be “vague, unclear, or ambiguous,” it can hurt the applicant.

According to Hirshfield, the concerns raised in the approval letter were taken by the town as a request for the bodies to work together, not as an ultimatum from the regional commission.

“We knew it was an issue, but we didn’t realize it was going to prevent them from approving our plan update,” said Matt Osborn, Hartford’s assistant zoning administrator.

Also, Hirshfield said, the quantity of public input the town sought before creating the new zoning district was — and is — an important factor.

“Even if (the regional commission) didn’t concur with that, it doesn’t mean the town is just going to change its opinion,” Hirshfield said, adding that the zoning district should be considered a local one, not a regional one.

Hartford’s master plans in 2007 and 2012 did not change in regards to the zoning district, Hirshfield and Osborn said. Hirshfield said required changes were made to other sections of the plan, such as a census update, but the increased workload following Tropical Storm Irene, and the perception that changes to zoning language were not needed for regional commission approval, prevented the two sides from discussing the new zoning district until this year.

“I don’t think there’s any breakdown,” said Gregory, of the regional planning commission. “I think it was extremely clear that there were discrepancies.”

Though regional approval is optional, towns whose master plans aren’t given the OK by their regional planning commissions are not, for instance, allowed to renew downtown designations, which in Hartford’s case would stymie the Tax Increment Finance district in White River Junction, Hirshfield said. Without approval, the town can’t apply for state planning grants. Hirshfield said that “quite a bit of planning activities (are) done through those grants.”

Gregory also said that towns without regional approval can’t levy impact fees, which are fees charged to developers to defray the cost of the public services they use during the development process. Hirshfield said she was unaware of regional approval affecting those fees. Hirshfield said the money is diverted to various funds, but didn’t know the total amount.

“There’s a lot of money there that is collected,” she said.

These downsides contribute in part to that meeting back in March, at which the two bodies first met to start the road to an agreement.

“The regional planning commission and the town realize that, if there is a way to come to a middle ground, let’s do that,” Hirshfield said.

Back and Forth

Caught up in the dispute is the possible Act 250 approval of Quechee Highlands.

Over the past several months, documents ranging from zoning maps to traffic studies to letters of testimony have become part of the public record in the District Commission’s review. As of a week ago, 129 separate documents of varying lengths had been uploaded.

In order to award a permit, the Act 250 board must find a project compliant with 10 predetermined criteria. Two of the final criteria, which deal with growth areas and local and regional plan compliance, have created the greatest stir, leading to a volley of memos over whether the project should be approved.

All of the documents will contribute to the board’s eventual decision. Linda Matteson, the District 3 coordinator for the state’s Natural Resources Board, said she was unsure when that decision will be issued.

“The Quechee Highlands project is not sprawl,” Paul Gillies, who represents B&M Realty, Milne’s company, wrote in a February memo. “It is the opposite of sprawl. It is not low density development. It is a well-planned community of buildings with a thoughtful design in a pedestrian-friendly environment. … It is what Exit 1 needs, what Hartford wants, and what will bring traffic and highway improvements to the interchanges that are sorely needed.”

The regional planning commission responded in a memo.

“This assertion apparently is based on (Gillies’) belief that ‘sprawl’ is merely a subjective term for development that an individual does not like,” commission stated, noting that the commission’s definition of the word has to do with development outside of village centers, along highways or in the countryside. “This development would not be the opposite of sprawl. It would be sprawl.”

However, both sides of the argument expressed a desire to come to some sort of agreeable conclusion soon.

“We have had a very good working relationship with the regional planning commission in the past,” Hirshfield said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.