A large mixed-use development proposed for Exit 4 on Interstate 89 has attracted statewide attention as a district environmental commission weighs the impact on farmland.
The proposed Green Mountain Center is striking in its size: 1.1 million square feet.
As envisioned by developer Jesse Sammis, it could ultimately include 274 residential units, a large hotel and conference center, office and light manufacturing space and a welcome center with a Vermont products showcase.
The project would be built on 172 acres along a scenic stretch of the interstate, with views of Killington, 20 miles away.
Some of the property to be developed is designated as prime agricultural land, which is one of the factors being weighed by the District 3 Environmental Commission during its partial review. The developer is asking the commission for permission to preserve farmland off-site in order to build on prime farmland at Exit 4.
The three commissioners have questioned whether the development could be more compact to preserve as much prime land as possible.
“Before you can come to us and ask for this off-site mitigation, you’re going to have to do a reasonably good job of clustering on-site,” chairman Tim Taylor told the applicants.
Discussion and testimony concerned how much prime agricultural land would be preserved at the site, and the impact of the project on nearby farmland. The commission is also considering whether the project conforms with local and regional development plans.
Taylor, who is a Post Mills farmer, says it’s not enough for the developer to preserve the prime land if access problems and fragmentation due to the surrounding development make it impractical for farming.
Taylor wondered whether, as a farmer, he would have to drive his manure spreader past the development’s visitor center to reach the farmland.
“We’ve always been operating under the assumption that that land would continue to be farmed. We’ve actually entered into negotiations with a local farmer to lease the retained lands going forward,” Peter van Oot, an attorney for the developer, responded.
Van Oot said the master plan for the development reflects an effort to cluster buildings and reduce use of prime farmland.
Stephanie Smith, chief policy enforcement officer with the Agency of Agriculture and Elizabeth Lord, a land case attorney with the Agency of Natural Resources, also expressed concern that some of the agricultural land the developer is preserving may be unsuitable for farming because of a stream or other natural barrier.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Conservation Law Foundation have party status in the hearings. They argue the project doesn’t meet Act 250 criteria for development of farmland, and say much more can be done to minimize the loss of prime agricultural soils.
“They’re paving over more than half of the very valuable agricultural land at this site. That flies in the face of the requirements of Act 250 and it flies in the face of sensible land use,” says Sandra Levine, an attorney with CLF.
Witnesses called by Levine told the commission that other properties owned by Sammis, including more than 1,000 acres around the Three Stallion Inn closer to town, would be more suitable for many of the uses proposed for the Green Mountain Center.
Representatives of the developer said problems with access, zoning and existing uses would make it impossible to move parts of the development to those properties..
Some of the property near Exit 4 has been farmed until recently, and Miles Hooper, who testified on behalf of opponents, said the loss of the land to development will hurt him and other farmers by creating greater competition for agricultural land in the area.
Hooper also indicated a willingness to purchase some of the land from the developer to keep it in production.
The Randolph Development Review Board has approved the project and the a majority of select board members have added their support.
In recent months, a local citizens group called Exit 4 Open Space has organized to fight the plan.
The District 3 Environmental Commission plans another hearing on the development.