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Fight Over Exit 4 Land Begins



Saturday, May 23, 2015
Randolph — The first hearing on whether a large proposed multi-use development off Interstate 89 would comply with the state’s land-use law raised concerns about its potential impact on agriculture and the aesthetics of what is now mostly open land.

Jesse “Sam” Sammis, who hopes to develop a visitors center, hotel and retail hub on his 172-acre property near Exit 4 on I-89, appeared on Friday before the District 3 Environmental Commission in his latest step to gain approval for his plans under Act 250, the law that regulates large-scale development in Vermont.

At the hearing, the Conservation Law Foundation, representing the Vermont Natural Resources Council and a number of concerned residents, obtained “party status,” a legal standing allowing members of those groups to participate in the project’s review and to appeal the commission’s decisions.

The Conservation Law Foundation has involved itself in other Act 250 cases and opposes Sammis’ development on the grounds that it may destroy farmland and hurt the aesthetics of the area, which boasts a sweeping view of the Green Mountains.

“I think this is an important test case for the protections in Act 250,” said CLF senior attorney Sandra Levine, who said she preferred to keep development in town centers and not near interchanges.

Sammis, for his part, contends that his plans, which include a center showcasing Vermont businesses, would stimulate the area’s economy. Gov. Peter Shumlin has spoken in favor of a public-private partnership with Sammis for the visitors center and the product showcase, noting that they would come at no cost to the taxpayer.

“The idea of the center is to promote Randolph’s downtown business,” Sammis told attendees of the hearing.

The property in question covers large portions of the two quadrants to the northwest and southwest of the intersection of I-89 and Route 66. If it were approved and fully developed — by no means a certain or immediate outcome, Sammis and his associates maintained — the development could total 1.15 million square feet, including 274 residential units, a 180-room hotel and conference center, 280,000 square feet of office space and 236,000 square feet of light manufacturing.

The commission made no decision on Friday regarding the main purpose of the hearing, which was to judge the developer’s compliance with sections of Act 250 that protect prime agricultural soil and ensure adherence to local and regional planning regulations. The officials instead took testimony and scheduled a further meeting for an as-yet-undetermined date after July 10.

Despite the plodding progress of the approval process, which has no definite timetable and can be subject to appeals, the prospect of development seemed imminent — and worrisome — to many residents who attended the meeting.

“It’s too much, too fast, too soon,” said Jessica Taffet, a member of Exit 4 Open Space, a group founded to oppose the project.

Taffet, who lives in Randolph Center, contended that bringing new businesses to Sammis’ land, which is near an existing McDonald’s restaurant, would draw commerce away from downtown.

As a group of advocates, developers, officials and concerned residents on Friday morning toured the southern portion of the area proposed for development, Taffet and others wore stickers bearing the name of their group and depicting a vista of forests, fields and rolling hills. She predicted that a large-scale commercial project at the scenic Route 4 exit would hurt the area’s tourism industry, as well.

“People come here to see our green landscapes,” she said, “not industrial buildings.”

Camden Walters, a small-scale farmer about two miles away in Randolph Center, said Sammis’ proposal exemplified a regional trend of development competing for open space with agriculture. Walters noted that, in the past, Sammis had rented out parts of his land for farming, and said he would rather see a group of farmers and other investors strike a deal to keep the whole parcel open for growing.

“There are farmers around here who don’t want to speak up because they have a relationship with Sammis,” Walters added.

(Later, during the hearing, Sammis said that his most recent tenant — who no longer tills the land — had supplied an affidavit saying his operation would not be harmed by the development.)

Sammis arrived in Randolph in 1970 and began buying land the next year, when he purchased the Three Stallion Inn, where Friday’s hearing took place.

During his presentation to the commission, Sammis said state officials from the Department of Building and General Services had approached him in 2010 to propose a public-private partnership to construct a new visitors center on his land. That same year, he obtained the approval of the Randolph Development Review Board. In 2013, Shumlin lent his support to the project.

In a brief interview during the tour of his land, Sammis said he had spent a good portion of the past two years working with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets to identify which portions of his property could be classified as “primary agricultural soil.”

Of those 132 acres, about 61 have been left undeveloped in the plans. Though the developer still hopes to build on some 71 acres of land viable for farming, “a special effort has been made to preserve the prime soils,” said Michael Zahner, a consultant working for Sammis.

District 3 Commission Chairman Tim Taylor indicated he would prefer to see those areas farmed, not simply left unused — in other cases, prime soil had gone uncultivated, he said, despite having been preserved under Act 250.

Resident Milo Cutler asked the developer to clarify how much of the untouched land was viable for farming, given that some of it would be, she contended, “chopped up into little parcels.”

The District 3 Environmental Commission has no deadline for making a ruling on whether Sammis’ project would comply with Act 250 criteria regarding agricultural soils and conformance to the regional plan. Other factors that will determine if the project receives Act 250 approval include its impact on the area’s aesthetics, water and traffic.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.