A plan to place a mixed-use development at the exit of Interstate 89 near Quechee has been rejected by a District Environmental Commission, but the developer says he will appeal that decision. The Commission’s ACT 250 ruling is at odds with approval granted by the town of Hartford.
Just off Exit 1 from I-89 onto Route 4 west, there's a gas station and about 160 acres of scrub grass. Scott Milne wants to transform that site into "Quechee Highlands," a village-like complex with housing, offices, and maybe some light manufacturing. Almost 40 percent of the project would be retail. Milne says he wants to attract not just tourists who already visit nearby Quechee Gorge and Woodstock, but full-time residents and employers.
“We want retail there, we want it to be vibrant, we want people to be able to come in and open up a butcher shop or a gift shop or all kinds of things like that. We are not looking to bring in a Target. There is absolutely no possible way anything like that is going to go there,” Milne said.
Milne says any fears that his project would cause sprawl or hurt existing retailers are unfounded. In fact, he believes his project would help those businesses by adding population to the area.
But that’s not the way the Two Rivers Planning Commission sees it. That’s an association of 30 municipalities in East Central Vermont who have agreed to a regional land-use plan. Executive Director Peter Gregory says Quechee Highlands does not conform to that plan.
“The adopted regional plan voted in by the 30 towns has made it very clear in directive language that retail uses shall only be in the villages and downtowns, not stripping along highways or at interstate interchanges,” Gregory said.
Gregory says if the project had been exclusively residential, it might not have run into this regulatory roadblock. The Commission that enforces the state’s Act 250 land use law agreed with Two Rivers that the retail portion of the Quechee Highlands proposal was unacceptable.
But the town of Hartford, where the project is located, has its own Planning Commission, which voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Developer Scott Milne says those members' voices should also count.
“I think a lot of work on our side and their side was unanimously approved by the town of Hartford and then, kind of at the eleventh hour, we get ambushed by Two Rivers, who sat out the whole way and then comes in and says, “Sorry it has a substantial regional impact, and now we’re going to tell you we don’t want it,” Milne said.
Two Rivers Director Gregory said the regional commissions do not necessarily trump local decision makers.
“Actually it’s not, I mean the legislature back in the sixties and seventies, when they set up the regional planning commission mechanism, anticipated the need for a greater than local review on things, and enabled… regional planning commissions to look at this and to be statutory parties, so it’s not 256 towns going their own separate ways. So there’s some regional review,” Gregory said.
Now it will be up to a third panel—the state environmental court---to settle the dispute. Milne says he’s confident he will prevail. The judicial process could take up to a year.