Bottom Line: Woodstock farm denied permit for already-built restaurant

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 10/30/2021 9:54:15 PM
Modified: 10/30/2021 9:54:16 PM

Note to developers in the Upper Valley: It’s a risky idea to build a project without first getting the required permits, even when you think you are legally in the right.

Otherwise you might wind up in the uncomfortable position of John Holland, a Boston developer who wanted to open a farm-to-table restaurant across the road from his weekend home in Woodstock only to have the state’s Natural Resources Board deny his ex-post-facto permit under Act 250, Vermont’s land use law governing large development projects.

On Oct. 22, the board’s District 3 Environmental Commission issued a 30-page decision finding that Peace Field Farm, as the project is called, is not in compliance with Woodstock’s 2016 Town Plan, specifically in regard to the proposed 80-seat restaurant, which the commission concluded falls outside explicit language under the plan’s land use section that mandates “development and future growth are to occur in established growth centers.”

Holland’s “barn style” restaurant, located on a rural and picturesque stretch of Pomfret Road near the Pomfret town line, “is a retail development and ... violates the clear, mandatory language” of the Town Plan, the commission determined.

The decision is a hard blow to Holland, who bought the former Conklin Farm outside the village in 2012 as a weekend home for his family and has invested substantially in bringing the farm back into operation, which is now leased and operated by Woodstock restaurateur and farmer Matt Lombard. Lombard had hoped to open a restaurant in the newly built structure with a menu largely sourced from the farm itself.

“What the District 3 Commission has done has gone through the back door to shut down Act 143 because they couldn’t go through the front door to block it,” said a clearly frustrated Holland last week, referring to a regulation allowing accessory businesses on farms.

He added that he isn’t yet sure whether he will appeal the decision to the Environmental Division of Vermont Superior Court, which hears Act 250 appeals.

“It wouldn’t be this massive money-making operation that you can afford to spend three years litigating,” he said.

For now, anyway, Holland’s Peace Field Farm restaurant appears dead. The one last hope lies in the Woodstock Town Development Review Board, which was granted authority under Act 143 to determine if the restaurant qualifies as an “accessory on-farm business.”

But the Woodstock board, which has been steadfastly silent on the question, has had the application for more than a year and not acted upon it.

Holland called it “denial by delay.”

Holland’s project, which attracted both critics and defenders in Woodstock, was designed to take advantage of Vermont’s three-year old Act 143, which was enacted to allow small farms develop “accessory on-farm businesses” like restaurants as long as the food is “principally produced” on that farm.

He spent more than $1 million — quite possibly several million — tearing down the historic roadside barn that was part of the old Conklin Farm to build a 2,600-square-foot structure with a commercial kitchen, “blast freezer” and 80-seat restaurant and bar surrounded by upward-facing floodlights that, in the words of one unhappy neighbor, lit up the site at night like “Santa’s Village.”

Although Holland was granted an initial permit by the town of Woodstock to build the barn structure, he later pivoted to the idea of opening a restaurant and bar in the building after the state adopted Act 143 in 2018. Holland had maintained that, as a farm-related enterprise, any decision about whether his restaurant was an acceptable use of the property properly rested with the Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, not the Act 250 process.

Finally, earlier this year, after not getting anywhere with the AAFM, Holland hired an attorney who specialized in “permit disputes” to help guide him through the Act 250 process.

Although some Woodstock residents were vocal in their support of Holland’s plan, arguing that a farm-to-table restaurant was a good fit with the area’s tourist economy, residents who live along Pomfret Road within eyesight of Peace Field Farm felt differently.

For them, the issue was the traffic, noise and nighttime illumination that they expected the restaurant — which they also feared would be marketed as a wedding venue — would attract.

It was the scale of the project that Peace Field Farm abutter Al Alessi said riled neighbors along Pomfret Road.

“If it was a funky little kind of place that was very casual, like that they have at Cloudland, that would be OK,” said Alessi, referring to Cloudland Farm, a farm-to-table restaurant open weekends in North Pomfret. “But this was white tablecloths, polished floors, a big bar and 80 seats open six days a week until 11 p.m.”

Alessi said if Holland had been willing to dial down the restaurant — he had agreed to mitigate the illumination or other “aesthetic” issues — then Alessi might have agreed to the plan, “but there was no give on that.”

Holland said the structure, which sits across the road from the former Conklin farmhouse that is now Holland’s get-away residence, can still be used for the “secondary” purpose for which it was built, as a processing and storage center for food — both livestock and garden — grown on the farm operation leased to Lombard.

In Vermont, history is as important as land use, and Holland might not be in the jam he is in today had he familiarized himself with it.

About 15 years ago, a developer sank $1.3 million into building a gift shop and deli near the Joseph Smith birthplace memorial in Royalton, modeled like a sugarhouse. Like Holland, that developer sought an Act 250 permit, only to see the application repeatedly denied.

Today, the building on Dairy Hill Road remains vacant.

Lebanon Ford remodels

Business activity is picking up along Miracle Mile in Lebanon. A new drive-thru Dunkin’ is going up at Miracle Mile Plaza and the Entertainment Cinemas finally reopened with new, luxury seating.

Now a $5.1 million car dealership overhaul is getting underway.

Lebanon Ford, the former Flanders and Patch Ford dealership which was acquired by St. J Auto four years ago, is breaking ground on a project that will include an expanded showroom and car service facility.

“We’ve been operating in a building that’s kind of been piecemeal together over the last 50 years and is a little bit of an eyesore,” said Nate Loschiavo, general manager of Lebanon Ford, whose family owns St. J Auto. “We’re going to have a much nicer building for customers, and our employees deserve a better working environment.”

The project calls for expanding the showroom by 3,000 square feet and increasing the repair facility by 10,500 square feet to make room for adding nine bays (auto repair is the future for dealerships as the margins on auto sales are shrinking) and redesigning the drive-thru access to the service area.

“We’re touching almost every square foot of this place and the entire face of the building will change,” said Loschiavo, who estimates the project will be completed in time for the rollout of 2023 models next fall.

He said the dealership renovation and expansion will relieve the congestion of vehicles on the lot, although that has been less of an issue during the pandemic, which will make it easier to maneuver the construction equipment in otherwise tight space.

“Inventory has been so low because we can’t get cars from the manufacturer anyway,” Loschiavo said. “So the timing on this actually works out pretty good for us.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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