Developer Says Revised Exit 4 Plan Preserves More Farmland, Opponents Say 'Not Enough'

Aug 20, 2015

A revised plan to develop land at Exit 4 in Randolph is being panned by those who oppose the project.

Last month, the District 3 Environmental Commission told the developer to submit a more compact plan for a large mixed-use project on 172 acres that includes primary farmland. 

The project could ultimately include residential units, offices, light manufacturing and a visitor center.

In all it would total more than 1.1  million square feet. In comparison, the Taft Corners development in Williston is about one million square feet.

This week, developer Jesse Sammis submitted a new plan that he says preserves more primary farmland by making some of the development more compact.

Attorney Peter Van Oot, who is representing Sammis before the environmental commission, says under the previous plan, 48 percent of primary agricultural land was left undeveloped. He says the revised plan preserves more land.

“Now approximately 101 acres or 59 percent of the primary agricultural soils on the site would be retained for future agricultural use,” says Van Oot.

In a recent hearing, District 3 Environmental Commission Chairman Tim Taylor expressed concern that even preserved land on the parcel might not be practical to farm because it could be hard to access.

Van Oot says the revised plan does more to preserve accessible open swaths of farmland.

“The plans further enhance this approach but from the beginning the applicant has tried to retain the land in broad swaths so that whatever is left there after the development can be accessed and effectively utilized for agricultural operations,” he says.

Van Oot says while they adequately address the commission’s concerns, the revisions aren’t significant.

On that point the development’s opponents agree.

“It changes nothing. It really is just nibbling around the edges,” says Brian Shupe, executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council.

"It changes nothing. It really is just nibbling around the edges." - Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council

VNRC and the Conservation Law Foundation are opposing the development before the commission.

The groups see it as an important test for the protection of high-quality agricultural land.  The developer says plans for the property fit with what local officials envisioned when zoning regulations for Exit 4 were adopted. Sammis' proposal has already received the approval of the Randolph Development Review Board.

The developer is requesting permission from the district environmental commission to preserve farmland elsewhere in exchange for building on some of the agricultural land at Exit 4.

Shupe says any Exit 4 plan has to preserve the farmland onsite.

“The off-site mitigation is only allowed in very limited circumstances and they don’t meet those conditions,” he says.

In last month’s recess order, the commission also asked for a list of other local properties owned by Sammis, presumably to determine whether some of the offices, housing or light industry proposed for Exit 4 might be built elsewhere.

Of the other Randolph property he owns, Sammis says they are either too small to accommodate additional development, or unsuitable.  In the case of two larger parcels, one — called the Stock Farm — has limited access. The the other, a golf course,  is subject to a covenant that prevents it from being used for any other purposed, Sammis says.

In documents filed with the commission, the developer says, “…asking an applicant to ‘break up’ its well-considered and locally permitted mixed-use project by relocating some or all of the office, residential or light industrial components of the project is contrary to well-established precedents under Act 250.”

The district environmental commission handed opponents of the project a defeat this week when it rejected their request to dismiss the developer’s application.

The commission will hold another hearing on the project on September 25. The commission’s deliberations are limited to the impact of the proposal on prime agricultural lands, and whether it conforms with local and regional plans.

No construction is currently proposed at the site. Future construction at the site would be subject to a full Act 250 review.