Randolph Senior Home Clears Block

Randolph — A key question that had been holding up Gifford Medical Center’s proposed senior living complex has finally been settled, clearing the way for the final phases of its Act 250 review to begin.

Last week, the Randolph hospital crossed a major hurdle when the District 3 Environmental Commission decided that the hospital had done enough to protect prime agricultural land on the 30-acre site in Randolph Center.

The issue had been a sticking point with the commissioners and divided the three-member board in a back-and-forth with Gifford over the past year. But the latest iteration of Gifford’s design convinced commissioner Susan B. Ford to change her position and join board chairman Tim Taylor in granting their OK on the agricultural impact question. Commissioner Stuart Blood was the lone vote against.

Gifford isn’t done with its Act 250 review, the Vermont state law for reviewing large-scale development projects. But last week’s approval on the agricultural impacts marked the end of a debate that has gone on for more than a year. The decision came as a relief to Gifford officials, who had been hoping to avoid appealing to Vermont environmental court to reach a resolution.

“We’re very excited,” said Joe Woodin, Gifford’s adminstrator. “The particular issue of prime (agriculture) soils is a very important one in Vermont ... It’s very exciting to have this part of the process behind us.”

Health officials have said there is a significant need for more senior living options in central Vermont, where local independent and assisted living facilities are in scarce supply. Many seniors are forced to relocate to Lebanon or Burlington to find housing where meals, housekeeping and nursing care is provided. There has been widespread support among senior advocates, regional planners and the Randolph community for Gifford’s project as a way to keep people living closer to home.

Last week’s decision comes more than a year after Gifford submitted its application back in October 2011.

In getting to this point, Gifford ended up with a senior living complex much smaller and more tightly compacted than what it had originally envisioned. Early designs had six buildings spread across a 25-acre parcel near Vermont Technical College, and included a mix of 100 independent living units, 35 assisted living beds and a 30-bed nursing home where the Menig Extended Care facility will move. The latest layout has five buildings squeezed onto just over 14 acres, and has up to 100 independent living units, 20 assisted living beds and the 30-bed nursing home.

The property, which is just off Route 66, is considered “primary agricultural soil,” or land that can be used for growing food, feed and forage crops. State law calls for mitigating the impact to highly valued farmland by clustering development to cause the minimal amount of impact, by paying to preserve land elsewhere, or some combination of the two.

Gifford had originally wanted to pay to preserve 61 acres off-site, but commissioners pushed back, saying the hospital could do more to cluster its project. The back-and-forth played out over the past year. Gifford bought adjacent property to be conserved, eliminated one of the buildings, changed roadways around and squeezed the project onto smaller footprints. Each time the hospital came back with a new design, commissioners wanted the buildings to come closer together.

Finally, the latest revision won approval as Ford, who had previously been the swing vote against it, changed her position.

Woodin said the hospital had to make some difficult choices in revising the project, and the process proved frustrating at times. However, he said Vermont’s careful consideration of development projects has helped the state avoid the kinds of sprawl seen elsewhere in the country, which has been to the state’s benefit.

“We had to make some tough decisions to get to a yes vote,” he said. “Do I wish we had a larger campus with more flexibility with the buildings? Yes, but this is environmental planning in Vermont.”

More than half of the 30-acre site will be left undeveloped and Gifford will still pay to have land conserved off-site, although the exact amount is not yet known. That calculation will be made by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

In his dissent, Blood said the Commission still had not received enough “credible evidence” to approve the project. He doubted the accuracy of the site-plan drawings submitted by Gifford because they were not done by a surveyor, and he raised questions about how much land was actually being conserved. He also said some of the data was inconsistent and contradictory.

Taylor and Ford acknowledged his concerns, but ultimately said they were well-enough satisfied to let the project move forward with the next step of review.

“We are aware that the figures are not based upon a survey and there may be some small variations in the acreage once final surveying is done,” the commissioners wrote. “However, the majority is satisfied that the amount of impacted primary agricultural soils will not change dramatically and are comfortable making positive partial findings of fact ... and proceeding with the application.”

The next step will be for Gifford to submit an application to actually build the project, or at least the first phase, which the hospital plans to do next month. It is also going back before the Randolph Development Review Board on Jan. 22 and started the process of getting a Certificate of Need from the state, a process that will assess the need for the senior living complex in Randolph.

Up until now, the issues debated in the Act 250 review have been specific questions around impact to streams, floodways, wetlands, soils and a host of other environmental concerns. Now, however, commissioners will start looking at the buildings themselves, the structure and aesthetics, said District 3 Coordinator Linda Matteson.

“It’ll be the real deal,” she said.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.