Column: More Than a Project Is at Stake in Quechee

Sunday, August 11, 2013

All who care about Vermont’s future, fairness in government and how communities settle disputes should pay heed to what is happening a few miles from the Connecticut River at Quechee Highlands.

Quechee Highlands is a proposed 130,000-square-foot commercial and residential village at Exit 1 on Interstate 89 in Hartford. The District 3 Environmental Commission, a part of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, denied the project’s permit last month.

That denial was disappointing and unexpected. We believe our project meets all Act 250 criteria and thought we had made a sound argument before the commissioners, and in response to objections raised by opponents. We still believe that, and will proceed with a lengthy and expensive appeal.

The environmental commission cited many concerns in denying our permit, but two issues are key to the denial — traffic and the regional plan. The way those two issues have played out during this process, however, has raised concerns on our part about how our experience has conflicted with two principles of good government — fairness and predictability.

Regarding traffic, we believe the commission’s ruling is in error. It comes in spite of the approval of our project by the Hartford Planning Commission and its acceptance by the Vermont Agency of Transportation. We’ve worked collaboratively with both the town and VTrans for several years to develop a set of traffic improvements that all parties agree to. Among them: a new dedicated westbound left-turn lane off Route 4 onto the southbound on-ramp and dedicated left- and right-turn lanes into Quechee Highlands from Route 4, which our project is paying for, as well as our pro-rated share of the cost of a light for the I-89 northbound intersection, when it is needed. The town of Hartford, VTrans and our traffic engineers all believe that the agreed-upon roadway and intersection improvements will address traffic and safety impacts generated by Quechee Highlands.

The principal reason Quechee Highlands was denied an Act 250 permit was because the Woodstock-based Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission argued that Quechee Highlands would have a “substantial regional impact.” Our appeal will challenge both the definition of “substantial regional impact” and how it’s been applied in this case.

Unlike New Hampshire, where regional planning commissions are advisory bodies only, in Vermont, Two Rivers has the ability to effectively veto local decisions by selling the notion of a “substantial regional impact.” Our appeal will argue that Vermont’s Environmental Court should deny this ploy for power by Two Rivers.

Two Rivers’ role is to review development proposals in light of the regional plan, which is approved by its commissioners. The commissioners are in charge of Two Rivers, and its staff have no independent authority to approve or disapprove anything.

Unlike other government agencies, which were helpful in pointing out how we could improve our project and encouraged us to continue (as long as we met their concerns), Two Rivers’ reaction didn’t extend beyond advising us to include “less retail” in the project and to “read the regional plan.” By the way, an initial plan called for the development to be exclusively retail; the current proposal is less than 37 percent retail.

We expected a better dialogue from our regional planning commission if it had serious problems with our proposal — not this kind of still hunt where the project would be opposed at the last minute.

What made this even more offensive was the question of who at Two Rivers actually decided to oppose the project. A review of the minutes of Two Rivers’ meetings before the Act 250 hearing indicates there was never a vote or even a discussion of our project. We were never asked to appear before the Two Rivers commission. Two Rivers’ Executive Director Peter Gregory even declined my invitation to meet collaboratively with Hartford’s planners.

Imagine that. Here is a $30 million project that can bring over 300 jobs to the region and provide a substantial boost to its economy and overall vitality. Yet no one at the regional planning commission thinks to hear the details from its developer before they oppose it?

If you live in Pomfret, with a shrinking school population and zero births last year, or Randolph, with Act 250 fights of its own, or any other town under Two Rivers’ jurisdiction, wouldn’t you want to know how your representative on the regional commission voted? There is no way to tell, as there was no vote and consequently no accountability.

Unlike our experience with Two Rivers, our work with Hartford should serve as a model for economic development in every part of Vermont. Hartford planners showed us how to proceed with our project in a way that met their objectives. They voted unanimously to approve Quechee Highlands and testified in our favor at the Act 250 hearing.

Using the regional plan to stop development seems the opposite of the commission’s purpose, which should be to help promote development that creates a foundation for economic health. Instead, the commission is applying a definition of “substantial regional impact” that allows it to oppose all but the most minor developments. The result is that Two Rivers has become all powerful — wielding power beyond what I believe lawmakers intended, and often thwarting the decisions of local planners.

The fight over Quechee Highlands has highlighted Vermont’s anti-business reputation and the continuing migration of business from Vermont to the other side of the river. While Two Rivers has been plotting to quash the 130,000 square feet of Quechee Highlands in Hartford, 2 million square feet of new commercial space is coming to Lebanon. Talk about significant regional impact ... and, in New Hampshire, regional planning authorities can’t push towns around the way Two Rivers is bullying Hartford.

Vermont governors have argued for the last 40 years that Act 250 is not designed to thwart the ideas of thoughtful developers — that the state’s land-use law isn’t anti-growth. We’ll see if that’s true.

Scott Milne is an owner of B&M Realty, the developer of Quechee Highlands.

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