A new anti-sprawl requirement that was added to Act 250 last June is meant to limit strip development in Vermont — something many applaud. But officials in Rutland Town say the new mandate may limit development more than lawmakers anticipated.
To understand how, its important to understand that developers going through the Act 250 process have to meet 10 different criteria. These cover things like: Is there sufficient water available? Will the project put an undue burden on local schools?
This story is about criterion 9-L, which was recently beefed up by lawmakers to clarify how the state should address rural growth areas in an effort to curb sprawl.
A Massachusetts developer who wants to put a wholesale club, restaurant and gas station on land along Route 7 in Rutland Town, is facing delays because of the new standards. And many local officials are upset saying that’s costing the town jobs and tax revenue.
According to the Agency of Natural Resources, the Rutland Town proposal — with its big parking lot, single story buildings and few connections to other businesses and neighborhoods — looks a lot like the kind of strip development sprawl the state wants to discourage.
But Rutland Town Select Board member Mary Ashcroft disagrees. “That land is pre-permitted for development,” she points out. “This is not developing something that has been proposed to remain open. This land has already gotten an Act 250 permit for commercial use. So to say that now it’s contributing to strip development when the permit has been existing for several years doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
A previous developer had won state approval to build a shopping center on the site several years ago. That project fell through but other businesses exist on all sides.
Jon Groveman, general counsel for the Agency of Natural Resources, says because of the new standards, and because the new developer has proposed some changes, however small, the project must be reviewed again.
And he says the fact that other businesses already exist nearby is immaterial. “What 9-L says is you don’t want to contribute to additional strip development in that area. So the question is — and I think everyone is looking at this the wrong way — it’s not yes or no, it’s how it’s built,” he says.
Groveman says the state wants to encourage development that protects historic villages, incorporates smaller, multi-story buildings, breaks up large parking lots and includes more sidewalks.
Mary Ashcroft supports the concept, but says Rutland Town surrounds Rutland City like a donut and doesn’t have a town center to protect. So that type of development is not always possible.
Tom Donahue, president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, worries that if the Rutland Town proposal is considered sprawl under 9-L, it could have a chilling effect on any new developments on the edge of towns or villages statewide.
A district Environmental Commission hearing on the proposal will be held Thursday morning in Rutland.