Jim Kenyon: Leveling the field

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/24/2022 11:35:45 PM
Modified: 9/24/2022 11:34:56 PM

A 196-unit apartment complex in downtown Lebanon, a “farm outlet store” near Interstate 91 in Hartland and a cluster of “tiny homes” for tourists in Brownsville.

The three proposed development projects in the news last week offer a window into how the Upper Valley’s landscape is changing, for better or worse. They’re also a reminder of the need for communities to differentiate between smart growth and growth for growth’s sake.

The plan put forward by a partnership of New England-based developers to build nearly 200 apartments on the shuttered Woolen Mill property in Lebanon seems like a no-brainer.

In the housing-starved Upper Valley, repurposing the 5-acre former industrial site next to the Mascoma River can’t happen soon enough. The Lebanon Planning Board has a public hearing on the proposal scheduled for Oct. 10.

As for the proposed projects in Hartland and Brownsville?

It’s hard to get enthused.

Both would require sacrificing open land to boost tourism in rural towns. Development that caters to out-of-town visitors who pump a few dollars into local economies sounds tempting. But once the bulldozers rumble in, the land is lost forever.

In Hartland, a Florida real estate developer wants to build a 7,500-square-foot store a quarter-mile from I-91’s Exit 9 South.

Aubrey Ferrao, who has been building luxury home communities in coastal southwest Florida since the 1980s, began buying up property in Hartland about 20 years ago.

He now owns more than 600 acres. His estate, Sunnymede Farms, features a herd of 80 Angus beef cattle and a maple sugaring operation.

When I stopped by Sunnymede last week, the farm’s manager told me that Ferrao was in town and promised to pass along the message that I’d like to set up an interview. (I didn’t hear back.)

Maple trees and a flawless stone wall line the town-maintained dirt road that slices through the farm. Ferrao’s hilltop stone house sits high above assorted red-and-white farm buildings and green pastures where cattle graze to round out the Country Living aesthetic.

Ferrao now looks to expand his reach beyond Town Farm Hill Road.

At a 2018 tax sale, he purchased a 17-acre parcel at Hartland’s gateway, just before the town’s welcoming sign, on Route 5.

Ferrao paid $120,000 for the property — $10,000 less than the town’s assessment. Since then, he’s spent a sizable amount cleaning up the property, which had several buildings beyond repair.

It’s here that Ferrao wants to build his store that would sell mostly meats, maple syrup and other products generated by Sunnymede Farms, according to documents filed with the state. There would also be a bakery, deli, small eating area and parking for 46 cars.

“This is not a Dollar General or a McDonald’s,” said Rutland attorney Jim Goss, who represented Sunnymede at Monday’s Act 250 public hearing.

Since Hartland voters have balked over the years at enacting a zoning ordinance to manage development, the state’s trademark land use law is about all that stands in the project’s way.

At the hearing, the Hartland Planning Commission voiced its opposition to the project, maintaining the proposed site is in a “rural area” where retail stores aren’t allowed under the town plan.

The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, of which Hartland is a member, also came out against the project.

A “principally retail establishment on an open parcel of land in a rural area of Hartland well outside the village center with no neighboring existing common development demonstrates that the project is not an efficient use of land,” lawyers for Two Rivers-Ottauquechee wrote.

Ferrao argues that what he has in mind is not a store but rather a “small-scale business” that his farm needs to sell its products.

It’s now up to the three-member District 3 Environmental Commission, which rules on Act 250 applications in northern Windsor County and most of Orange County, to settle the matter.

Act 250 is also about to come into play in the “tiny house development” proposed in Brownsville.

When I was growing up in the town 50 years ago, the property’s owner tended a large vegetable garden that stretched across much of what is now a vacant field on the outskirts of the village on Route 44.

Last year, West Windsor residents Mark Morse and Yulia Moskvina purchased the 2.4-acre parcel for $60,000, town records show. (Brownsville is part of West Windsor.)

Six months after buying the land along Mill Brook, Morse and Moskvina applied for a town permit to build a half-dozen 525-square-foot houses for short-term rental use.

At the suggestion of the town’s Development Review Board, Morse and Moskvina cut their plan to five units.

The board approved the project in July, but it still must pass muster with Act 250. As of last week, an application hadn’t been filed.

The property is located within the town’s primary growth village zoning district, which I guess means plowing up land that at one time was used to grow fresh food is OK.

Still, it seems a waste.

Judging from state school enrollment data, I’d think West Windsor would be better off putting its energies into creating housing for families with children. (I wanted to run that idea past Morse and Moskvina, but my phone call wasn’t returned.)

Ten years ago, the town’s K-6 Albert Bridge School had 68 students, which isn’t a lot. This year, the school is down to 49 students (a 28% decrease from 2012) in the seven grades. Or put another way, seven kids per class.

Now that’s tiny.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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