A developer and conservation groups have reached an agreement that will preserve prime agricultural land at Exit 4 on Interstate 89, ending a controversial plan to build a large development at the Randolph Exit.
“This a tremendous victory for everyone who cares deeply about farming in Vermont and for the natural beauty we have here,” said Sandra Levine of Conservation Law Foundation, addressing a group that gathered on a windy hilltop next to the Interstate in Randolph on Tuesday to hear the announcement of the agreement.
It was hammered out between CLF, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Preservation Trust of Vermont and developer Jesse Sammis.
Sammis had proposed a 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use development – larger than Taft’s Corner in Williston.
Under the agreement, he will instead sell 149 acres to the Montpelier-based Castanea Foundation, a private nonprofit funded by an anonymous Vermont family. It’s dedicated to preserving farmland and, in particular, supporting goat dairies.
There is also an option in the agreement for the Preservation Trust of Vermont to purchase another 22 acres, if the money can be raised.
Tim Storrow, the Castanea Foundation’s executive director, says the $1.2 million purchase easily fulfills the organization’s mission and has broader implications.
“But also the larger community values here,” says Storrow. “The open space values, the scenic values and supporting the long-standing public policy in Vermont to foster growth around our community centers and not having sprawl development up and down [Interstate] 89.”
Storrow says the foundation will sell the conservation easement for the property, then sell the land to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph, which will be able to purchase it at a lower price since it will no longer have development value.
Miles Hooper of Ayers Brook Goat Dairy told the group that there’s a demand among area farmers for good farmland, and the loss of this property would have hurt local small farms. Hooper says everyone benefits from the agreement.
“I think agriculture, whether we are directly involved in it or not, is something that we all appreciate because it’s what keeps our state looking the way it is," Hooper said. "It’s what attracts visitors to our state and fuels our economy. I think it’s what we need to be very careful about moving forward. I think that this moment sets a great precedent for that."
Ayers Brook Goat Dairy was established by Vermont Creamery, which was recently sold to Land O’Lakes. However, the dairy was not included in the sale.
A local citizens group called Exit 4 Open Space played a critical role in organizing opposition to the proposed development
“By keeping farmland in farming, this also helps to protect Randolph’s historic designated downtown,” says the group's David Hurwitz, who owns a small furniture making business in Randolph.
The debate over the controversial project unfolded before the District 3 Environmental Commission, which conducted a partial Act 250 review of the plan.
Developer Jesse Sammis says he has a long history of helping to conserve land. Sammis, who is 79, said he decided not to pursue developing the land because the state’s review process takes too long and is too cumbersome.
“All my pals who develop in Boston and New York and other parts of the country, they say, 'There’s no way I’d come to Vermont to develop,'” he says.
Sammis says he has mixed feelings about the agreement.
“I’m happy about it from a conservation standpoint. As a developer and somebody who’s lived in Randolph for over 40 years and knows that there’s a tremendous demand for good jobs, I’m disappointed. There was the opportunity to preserve almost all the prime ag land and have development as well.”
Conservation groups say under the agreement they’ll pay considerably less than the appraised value of the land.
Brian Shupe, executive director of VNRC, said the agreement illustrates that the development review process works.
“It’s a significant win for conservation and I think it’s a significant win for Act 250," says Shupe. "It played a role in bringing the developer to the table to look at alternatives to a bad project."
There is one critical piece of property whose fate is still uncertain. In addition to the 149 acres of farmland purchased by the Castanea Foundation, there is a 22-acre site that Preservation Trust of Vermont has the opportunity to buy if it can raise $1 million by June 15.
The property provides a panoramic view of the mountains from the interstate.
“This exit here in Randolph is one of the most beautiful along I-89,” says Preservation Trust Executive Director Paul Bruhn. “A lot of people drive by here and they do it often. I think we all would be happiest to see this land protected.”
Bruhn says $150,000 has been raised so far, but the amount of money involved in the purchase and the short timeline is formidable.
Sammis says if Preservation Trust fails to raise enough to buy the land, he’ll pursue building a hotel on it, a plan that would likely be opposed by Exit 4 Open Space.
David Horwitz says the group isn’t against a hotel, but would like to see one in a location that would benefit downtown.
Paul MacAdams of Braintree, who also attended the announcement, has a connection to the land.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, MacAdams had a dairy farm on the some of the property that’s being preserved. He summed up his feelings in a word.
“Perfect!” said McAdams. “It’s gonna be fields, dammit! Let it stay that way. Too much of Vermont is getting chewed up.”
Sammis had envisioned a development that included light industry and office space, housing and a visitor center with retail space and a hotel.
His initial proposal would have developed more than 70 acres that the state has identified as prime agricultural land.
In exchange, Sammis wanted to pay a fee to preserve land elsewhere.
But the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Conservation Law Foundation told the commission that the proposal did not meet the criteria for off-site mitigation, and if the commission approved the plan it would set a precedent that could affect development on farmland throughout the state.
Concerns were also raised about the environmental impact of the project and its effect on the downtown business district.
The plan had already been approved by the Randolph Development Review Board and supported by the select board.
Fourteen months ago, after a number of hearings, Sammis withdrew his proposal before the commission had finished its work.
At the time, negotiations were underway between Sammis, CLF, VNRC and Preservation Trust of Vermont, which led to the agreement to sell and preserve the land.