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Editorial: Regional vs. Local; Commission Rejects Quechee Project

The recent rejection of the proposed Quechee Highlands mixed-use project prompted its developer to express disappointment, which is understandable, but it’s hard to imagine what other ruling the District 3 Environmental Commission could have rendered. In determining whether to grant an Act 250 permit, the commission has to consider whether such a proposal conforms to the regional plan, and Quechee Highlands didn’t in a couple of fundamental ways — perhaps explaining the unanimity of the three commissioners. The project may be thoughtfully designed, but it’s in the wrong location.

Of course, the fate of the project has significance far beyond just the developer. Quechee Highlands would have transformed not just the now-undeveloped 168-acre property right off Interstate 89’s first exit, but would have had an impact on Quechee and the whole Route 4 corridor in the Upper Valley. Just the first phase of the proposal was reviewed by the commission, and that alone would have resulted in the development of 10 buildings on 12.5 acres, including 10,000 square feet of residential space, 43,000 square feet of retail space and 62,000 square feet of offices. That far exceeds all development in Quechee during the boom years that preceded the Great Recession.

If developer Scott Milne had reason to be optimistic it was because his plan was embraced by town officials in Hartford. The area had been designated as a growth center — Hartford officials said they hoped such zoning would encourage thoughtful development and spare the area from the mish-mash of truckstops and fast-food restaurants that often blights areas near the interstate — and Quechee Highlands received unanimous approval from the Hartford Planning Commission on two occasions.

The problem is that Hartford’s town plan was in conflict with the regional plan adopted by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, which called for major developments to be confined to existing development centers. The wisdom of that approach is underscored by this particular proposal: A major mixed-use project right off the interstate not only would have resulted in sprawl, but could have undermined the health of existing development centers in nearby Quechee village, White River Junction and Woodstock.

At first glance, it appears that the regional commission had the choice of applying the town’s plan, which allowed the development, or the regional one, which prohibited it. In fact, it didn’t. State law requires that projects that would have a “substantial regional impact” be reviewed under regional plans. Quechee Highlands qualified on several grounds: The more than 100,000 square feet of new commercial space that it would create is five times the 20,000-square-foot threshold; the development was of a scale different from anything in the area; and it would significantly affect the existing capacity of a regional public facility, namely Route 4. Put another way, had the potential impact of the proposed development been limited to Hartford, the commission would have been obliged to judge it according to the town plan.

The logic of applying the regional plan for projects with regional consequences is particularly apparent in the commission’s assessment of Quechee Highlands’ impact on Route 4 traffic. Traffic from the development would worsen an already-hazardous situation along Route 4 by adding to congestion, increasing delays at several key points and encouraging drivers to overcome those delays by pulling out into the road when it isn’t safe to do so. Route 4, of course, is not used just by Hartford residents; it is a preferred route of down-country skiers on their way to the Green Mountains and by Upper Valley residents to and from Woodstock. At a time when a series of fatal collisions has heightened awareness of the dysfunctionality of that route, it would have been fool­hardy to approve a development that would have compounded the problems there.

Understandable as Milne’s disappointment with the ruling might be, it’s misdirected. Milne seems to think that the project has been derailed by the meddling of remote and out-of-touch regulators.

“Working with the Town of Hartford, and particularly the people on their Planning Commission, has inspired confidence that free enterprise and entrepreneurism can comfortably coexist with regulation and concern for the public’s good in Vermont,” he said in a statement issued after the ruling. “Perhaps bureaucrats from Montpelier should come down here for some learning?”

Just to be clear: His application was reviewed by three local commissioners — Tim Taylor, a Thetford farmer; Susan Ford, a lawyer who practices in Woodstock and White River Junction; and Anne Margolis, a Corinth resident who works in the Vermont Public Service Department — who applied a law passed by elected representatives in the Legislature.

It wasn’t the review process that was flawed; it was the location of the proposed development.