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Farmers, Developer Rumble in Randolph



Saturday, July 18, 2015
Randolph — A battle between a Randolph developer and conservationists heated up Friday as the two sides presented differing views to an Act 250 commission on whether a proposed multi-use project along Interstate 89 would hurt the local farming community.

At issue: dozens of acres of primary agricultural soil, some of which would be paved over to support the project’s planned condos, light industrial spaces, hotel, apartment buildings and office space.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has come out in support of a component of the deal, the building of a visitors center on developer Jesse Sammis’ 172-acre property, two parcels on either side of Route 66, right off Exit 4 of I-89.

But during a five-hour hearing before the District 3 Environmental Commission on Friday, experts called by Sandra Levine, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the development would diminish a prized resource for farmers.

The development plan calls for the loss of 71 of the site’s 123 acres of primary agricultural soil.

Miles Hooper, a dairy goat farmer wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt that read “Chevre Forevre,” said his business was impacted when Sammis stopped leasing the pastures to farmers.

“The way that this directly affects my business is, a number of farms have been using those fields for the last 10 years. They were not allowed to use that this spring,” Hooper said. “They were not allowed to plant corn and yield 20 ton-to-the-acre fields. So now what do they do? They came down to rent a farm in our valley, a farm that we would have naturally made a play for.”

But Commission Chairman Tim Taylor, who is himself a farmer in Thetford, said much of the testimony offered by Hooper and others called to testify by Levine was not relevant to the question at hand.

Taylor was an active presence throughout the hearings, often interrupting people on both sides of the debate, cutting off lines of discussion he considered to be irrelevant, and interjecting his own questions.

“Again, I keep trying to bring it back to the criteria here ...,” he told Hooper. “How is this development going to affect the future?”

Under Act 250, a state law which regulates large-scale development, projects that would reduce the agricultural potential of primary agricultural soils have to meet a stringent set of criteria.

The burden is on Sammis to show the development won’t interfere with or jeopardize farming on neighboring lands; that he owns no other lands that would serve the same purpose; that he will mitigate the reduction of agricultural potential; and finally, that he will minimize the impact by designing the project in a compact way.

Taylor repeatedly questioned Sammis’ lawyer, Peter Van Oot, on whether the design was as compact as it could be.

“I want to understand better why you can’t shift this around some more, and that’s the kind of testimony that I’m interested in,” he said.

John Benson, an engineer with the project, said the design was the end result of a lengthy planning process that included the town of Randolph, and that shifting the building footprints could create new problems, such as eliminating buffers between residential and commercial sites or encroaching on vistas that the town wants left open.

Motorists driving along I -89 in the stretch around Exit 4 enjoy a sweeping view of the Green Mountains.

Sammis said the project has taken 11 years to get to this point; he also said some designs that could reduce the project’s footprint, such as a parking garage, were too expensive.

“You price yourself out of the market,” he said.

The developers also revealed that Sammis is in active negotiations with farmers to lease some of the land around the edges of the proposed project site; Hooper expressed concern that his testimony could adversely impact his business dealings with Sammis.

Taylor also questioned whether the development would inhibit farmers from using the adjoining land, and was dismissive of the idea that farmers and condo owners could share the same road without problems.

“I’ll lay my cards on the table, so to speak,” Taylor said. “I have no interest in that piece as a farmer. I can’t bring manure in there in front of a hotel and start slobbering it all over the place.”

During a break in the meeting, state Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, said he supports keeping agricultural land open to help produce food.

“You’ve got the richest upland soils in the state of Vermont here,” said MacDonald, who has raised beef cattle on his land. “It’s remarkable. A gift of the glaciers.”

Taylor said commissioners would take time to consider all of the testimony before making a decision; the permitting process is much broader than the issues considered on Friday, which was only a partial hearing on Act 250’s primary agricultural soil requirements.

Before a permit is issued, the project also must demonstrate compliance with a wide range of other criteria, including the impact on existing natural resources on the site.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.