There is an important struggle over responsible land use playing out in Randolph, where a significant tract of prime agricultural soil is at risk of permanent loss in the name of what some might maintain is “just progress.”
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) who are partnering with Preservation Trust of Vermont in challenging the oversized development at Exit 4 in Randolph, have asked the District 3 Act 250 Commission to dismiss the project application because it is so egregiously non-conforming.
Brian Shupe, Executive Director of the VNRC commented on what is at stake in Randolph:
“This sprawling project is an enormous waste of agricultural soils…if (it) gets approved, in this location no farmland in Vermont is safe.”
Two of the principle reasons why Act 250 was drafted by the Legislature were to preserve valuable working landscapes for future generations and to stop the spread of highway-centric sprawl that undermines the character of Vermont. This, the framers believed, is fundamental to our quality of life and longterm viability.
Apparently hoping to slide past the well-established standards of Act 250, developer Sam Sammis courted the State’s favor by promising to build a brand-new Visitors Center to replace one that is currently closed and in need of maintenance.
The proposal of a privately owned and operated Visitors Center at the location was first revealed in 2012. At the time, it was described by Mr. Sammis as a “win-win” public/private partnership involving a 5,000-sq. ft. visitor center with
“…a 40,000-sq.ft. facility showcasing Vermont products, all at no taxpayer expense.”
The Shumlin administration jumped right on board with the proposal, but many in the environmental community were immediately concerned with the scale and location of the project, while others were concerned that the partnership might have unanticipated consequences impacting public control of an interstate exit.
Mr. Sammis’ vision has grown substantially since the original announcement. The overall scale of the project has mushroomed to well-over a million square-feet, including a hotel, some private homes and light industry; all closely clustered around Exit 4 and consuming irreplaceable quality farmland.
To permit this project would mean essentially gutting Act 250 and abandoning the principles that have for so long made Vermont stand-out as a beacon of beauty and environmental responsibility above all and any other state.
Mr. Sammis may think of it as a “win-win” for the state, but I rather doubt that. I think that overlooks what visitors are actually looking for when they come to Vermont.
Remember the days of our childhood road trips? Dad or Mom would actually stop in a small town we’d never visited before. While they gassed-up the station wagon, we “took advantage of the facilities,” then strolled down the block to buy ice-cream or soda; or maybe we picnicked in the park. We saw a lot of America that way and had no need of commercial “visitors centers.”
Maybe we weren’t in such a hurry to be someplace else back then.
I kind of think the appeal of Vermont for tourists is that, even now, its largely rural environment; its lack of billboards and clutter, links us to a cultural memory that other places have left far behind.
The framers of Act 250 recognized that therein lies an intangible commodity that must be protected and preserved for the benefit of Vermonters in generations to come.