Last January, Gov. Peter Shumlin praised a proposal from a prominent developer to construct the state’s first privately funded, public rest area.
But the project off Interstate 89 in Randolph would impact some of the region’s prime farm land. And opposition from both state regulators and environmentalists is threatening to derail his massive development plan.
The public rest area off Exit 4 in Randolph is just one small part of the proposal. Developer Sam Sammis also had plans for a hotel, office buildings and hundreds of residential units. And he says the 40,000 square-foot public welcome center won’t work for him financially without the densely packed development he wants to put nearby.
But the tract on which Sammis wants to build happens to contain high-quality agricultural soils. And the state’s land use development law, called Act 250, includes strict regulations designed to protect them.
“The public interest is protecting what is a finite resource – primary agricultural soils,” says Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “And in Vermont today, unlike most of the rest of the country, what we’re seeing is a loss of agricultural land and an increase in the number of farmers that are looking to farm the land.”
Shupe is among the high-profile environmentalists opposing Sammis’ plan.
Current law would require Sammis to preserve a portion of the Exit 4 property, so it could be used for farming. But Sammis has spent the last year lobbying lawmakers and administration officials for changes to Act 250 that would allow him to develop all of the parcel.
In a letter to administration officials, Sammis says the rest area is likely contingent on his ability to get those revisions. And one environmental organization is worried that the Shumlin administration is pushing for changes to Act 250 to accommodate Sammis’ desires.
Legislation being pushed by the administration would in some instances allow a development on the entirety of a piece of farmland, so long as the developer pays money to preserve farmland elsewhere.
Sandy Levine, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation of Vermont, says this proposed change would clear the way for the Exit 4 development. And Levine says correspondence between the Sammis and administration officials suggest they’re pushing for the bill – known as H-448 – on Sammis’ behalf.
“I know that 448 provides at least some of the relief that this developer was looking for, in terms of being able to develop this land, and the administration has advocated very strongly in favor of this proposed change in the law that would make it easier to develop farmland,” Levine says.
Ron Shems is director of the Vermont Natural Resources Board, the state agency that enforces Act 250. Shems says that not only was the proposed legislation in place before the Sammis proposal came forward, he says it would do nothing to lower the regulatory hurdles blocking the Exit 4 plan.
Shems says the bill would allow for what is known as off-site mitigation in some instances. But he says the rule change wouldn’t apply to parcels with the kind of top-quality soils like the ones found off Exit 4. As for Levine’s assertion that the administration is coming to the aid of Sammis?
“That’s simply not true,” Shems says. “What’s motivating us is a statute that allows off-site mitigation under appropriate circumstances. What we’re asking is for the Legislature to define what those circumstances are.”
The bill was shelved last week by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, over concerns about its impact on Sammis’ ability to move forward with his Exit 4 plans. Bennington Sen. Bob Hartwell, the Democratic chairman of that committee, says he wants to help Shems and the state make revisions to Act 250 while ensuring that areas near interstate interchanges, especially ones with prime farmland, aren’t subsumed by new development.
“So what we want be careful is we’re not doing anything in any of this legislation that makes it easier to develop on prime ag soils outside of growth centers, or downtowns,” Hartwell says.
Sammis office said he would be unavailable for comment for this story.