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Adverse parties win Act 250 status in Randolph hotel project review
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Courtesy: John Lippman | News Source:

RANDOLPH — A minor thorn in the side or a torpedo that threatens to sink another development project near the scenic Exit 4 interchange along Interstate 89?

That’s the question now facing the developers of a proposed Hampton Inn hotel and event center along Route 66 who found to their annoyance that Exit 4 Open Space, the grassroots organization that played a pivotal role in defeating a proposed mixed-use development near the same location two years ago, is now weighing in as part of the hotel project’s Act 250 review.

“We’re a little shocked that Open Space would show up when they haven’t been involved at all, because no one’s contacted me,” said Paul Rae, one of the principals in the Hampton Inn project, when an attorney showed up at the District 3 Environmental Commission’s Act 250 hearing last month seeking to gain party status in the proceeding.

“It’s disheartening, to be honest,” said a visibly agitated Rae.

Exit 4 Open Space, a group of Randolph residents who fought the 172-acre mixed-use project at the southwest corner of Exit 4 and whose developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis eventually gave up and sold the parcel to a farmer and conservation group, has resurfaced to weigh in on the Hampton Inn project.

The group, represented by Barre, Vt., attorney Brooke Dingledine — who also represented Exit 4 Open Space in its fight against the earlier project — was granted preliminary party status in the Hampton Inn’s Act 250 proceeding, along with several of the project’s neighbors who say they are worried about the proposed hotel’s impact on their water wells, noise from an open tent for parties, nighttime parking lot illumination and increased traffic along Route 66.

“I had no intention of being involved in this and only got involved when nearby concerned individuals were looking for some guidance on how they could be heard,” Dingledine, a former longtime School Board member in Randolph, said last week. “I’m not trying to stop this project. I’m trying to make sure it’s done in a responsible manner.”

By being granted “preliminary” status in an Act 250 quasi-judicial review — the environmental commission will set final status either in the decision it renders or in a separate memorandum — the party can introduce evidence in the proceeding, cross-examine the applicant and testify themselves.

State agencies, such as the Agency of Agriculture, Farm & Markets, local municipal authorities such as selectboards, or regional bodies like the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission are automatically included as parties in Act 250 proceedings.

One of the project’s nearby residents who was granted preliminary party status, Linda LaFrance, grew up in Randolph and currently lives in Rochester, N.Y., but she said she’s hoping to build a retirement home on a few acres of land she owns that overlooks the hotel site.

“I understand that there are businesses in Randolph that want a place for people who are coming in for training to stay,” said LaFrance, who nonetheless questions if the developers might be overestimating the demand they will see from area employers such as GW Plastics and Applied Research Associates.

Still, the rooftops of the hotel and event center will be directly in her westward line of sight and with the “party tent open from May to October it’s going to take noise outside. Sound carries,” LaFrance said.

Farm Developing LLC, which comprises five partners, all either residents or people with strong ties to Randolph, has proposed a 79-room hotel with adjacent 400-seat conference center and 152-seat restaurant on a 26-acre parcel about a quarter-mile east on Route 66 from Exit 4.

In the works for the past two years and estimated to cost $8 million to $12 million, the project’s backers say the Hampton Inn-branded facility will address the paucity of hotel space between Hartford and Montpelier/Barre and help foster recreational tourism in the area. To be situated behind a barrier of trees in the southeast corner of the interchange, the hotel is not expected to be easily visible to motorists on the highway.

Compared to the prior Exit 4 mixed-use project, the Hampton Inn proposal so far has not encountered the same organized opposition from the community. In July, the town’s Development Review Board granted a green light for the plan and waived the 35-foot height limit in the interchange district to nearly 50 feet to accommodate a third floor for the hotel.

And the project has already cleared two important hurdles.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets approved Farm Developing’s primary agriculture soils mitigation plan, according to an Oct. 19 letter issued by the agency. The plan lays out portions of land to be “mitigated” or conserved to help protect prime farmland in line with Vermont law.

(The impact of the earlier Sammis project on 150 acres of prime agriculture soil was one of the rallying points against the project, and a key sticking point in the Act 250 review).

In addition, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, which has a big say in land use on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, is supporting the hotel project, according to Executive Director Peter Gregory. Conforming with the regional plan is also a criterion under Act 250.

Five residents who abut or live near the proposed hotel, however, were granted preliminary party status by the District 3 commission to address their concerns over traffic issues, the hotel’s impact on the surrounding area’s “aesthetics” and whether it would affect their underground water wells.

Joan Sax, whose 206-acre property abuts Vermont Technical College and is “about a mile as the crow flies” from the proposed hotel site, expressed concern over how the hotel — which is projected to use 19,000 gallons of water per day — would impact her water supply.

Water use is an issue among nearby residents because there is already a cluster of high-demand facilities in the area, including Gifford’s senior living community Morgan Orchards and the recently opened state agriculture and environmental testing lab at VTC.

“We have very small, divided aquifers in Vermont. The more building there is and the more fields and forests eliminated, the less absorption we have,” said Sax, who lives outside the 2,000-foot radius for which the hotel is required to test for well impact. “I don’t like the light pollution or the aesthetics or any of that. But far more essential is I want to make sure I have water.”

Sax ultimately did not prevail in getting the environment commission to order a “mapping” of the aquifers as she would have liked. But the three-member panel did respond to concerns of nearby residents regarding noise that could emanate from parties held under the tent at the hotel, as well as worries over the traffic along Route 66 and the glare that would be cast by parking lot lighting.

Following the Oct. 4 hearing, the District 3 commission ordered the project’s developers to submit a noise monitoring and mitigation plan for outdoor events under the tent. The commission also required a new traffic plan, saying the previous one was insufficient.

Although the project’s developers produced a traffic study with estimates for the hotel — 59 vehicle trips per hour between peak hours 4 and 6 p.m. — it did not include a breakout estimate for traffic generated by the 400-seating capacity event center.

Tim Taylor, chairman of the District 3 Environmental Commission, said at the Oct. 4 Act 250 hearing that he was “dumbfounded” over why the traffic impact study showed only data for traffic related to the hotel and restaurant but not the event center. When the project’s engineering consultant explained that the “hotel” figure included data sets based on other comparable hotels with event centers, Taylor shot back the information was “irrelevant” to the proposed project at hand.

“You’re saying nothing for a conference with a large number of people coming in at the same time and a large number leaving” at the same time, he said, noting at one point that the traffic study showed only 22 vehicles entering the hotel at peak morning hours when hundreds of visitors conceivably be arriving for a conference that began at 9 a.m.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Taylor said.

The issue of traffic — and the fact that drivers typically exceed the posted 40 mph speed limit — worries some neighbors.

“I come close to getting clipped three to four times a year, and that’s without the hotel,” said Dwain Chabot, whose driveway on Route 66 is between Exit 4 and the planned turn-off for the hotel’s entrance. “The speed limit there is 40 miles an hour, but people are always whipping around the curve.”

And, responding to concern that about nighttime lighting, the commission ordered the developers to produce specifications about how the sign will be illuminated and to “consider reducing the size of the sign” and use “more subdued colors,” according to the order.

The deadline for the developers to submit the requested material to the commission is Wednesday, Nov. 6, and the parties have until Nov. 18 to submit any rebuttals.

In the past, the hotel’s developers have been eager to talk about the project, but in the wake of the first Act 250 hearing last month they have been declining to comment.

Asked for his reaction to the hearing, Perry Armstrong, a member of the Randolph Selectboard and one of the hotel developers, replied via email: “The only response that I can offer is that we are addressing the request from the Act 250 commission.”

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