This editorial ran in the February 21st edition of the Times Argus.
By David Moats
A developer’s decision to withdraw his proposal for a massive commercial and residential development at Exit 4 on Interstate 89 in Randolph shows that the environmental ethos that has helped Vermont maintain its rural character in recent decades is still alive.
Randolph residents were alarmed at a proposal that could have shifted commercial activity away from the town center up to the Interstate, furthering the kind of sprawl that is anathema to most Vermonters and sapping the vitality of downtown Randolph. The project would have been contrary to state policy and professed preferences of most Vermonters about the need to preserve the working landscape. The development also jeopardized prime farmland, which is meant to be protected by Act 250, the state’s land-use law.
The developer, Jesse Sammis, withdrew his project from review by the District 3 Environmental Commission after discussions he had held in private with two environmental groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Natural Resources Council. The groups believed the project was massively out of scale and inappropriate for the site, and they, along with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, were pleased by the developer’s decision.
Sandra Levine of CLF said, “The withdrawal is good news. We applaud Mr. Sammis’ actions. Going forward, we will continue to seek opportunities to preserve the valuable resources at the project site.”
Brian Shupe, of VNRC, said his group would work to make sure any development at Exit 4 would comply with the law and would not “undermine the economic vitality of Randolph Village.”
A Randolph-based group called Exit 4 Open Space was more cautious about the outcome. That’s because its members were not part of the private discussions between Sammis and VNRC and CLF. They did not know what was said behind closed doors.
It’s possible to imagine what was said. “This is never going to pass Act 250,” Shupe and Levine might have said. “It eats up prime farmland and it threatens downtown Randolph. Get real. It’s not going to happen.”
It was almost like dogma for Gov. Howard Dean that Interstate interchanges would not be developed, and it’s easy to see why. From Brattleboro northward the two interstate highways offer a grand sweep of noncommercialized landscape that is one of the best advertisements anywhere for the state. Studding the highways every eight or 10 miles with the kind of generic pit stops familiar elsewhere in the country would be a travesty.
As time passes, it could happen that Vermonters take their environmental protections for granted. There will always be developers coming forward arguing for jobs and economic growth, making it seem like saying no to development is a luxury we can’t afford. Those who care about the beauty of the landscape and the importance of the working landscape may find themselves on the defensive, arguing against what is described as progress.
The working landscape is a concept familiar to most Vermonters. The traditional land-use pattern in the state is small villages and towns surrounded by countryside that is more than a postcard: It is working farm- and forestland supporting a vital agricultural and forest sector. Our villages and downtowns are our vital commercial and residential centers.
This pattern maintains three values that need not be in competition: economic vitality, both urban and rural; beautiful open land; and preservation of heritage. Preserving this pattern is a conscious choice involving policy decisions: Promoting downtowns; fostering agriculture, both large-scale dairying and diverse local products; and fighting strip development and sprawl.
Sometimes making that choice leads to a fight, and that is what happened in Randolph. Some local residents were worried that the process was being abused and the project was being railroaded through. They were even concerned that VNRC and CLF might make some kind of unacceptable compromise. Now they are not sure what will come next because Sammis could come back with an altered proposal.
Shupe has spoken of the possibility that someone could purchase the farmland at the exit in order to preserve it. That would be one way to address the farmland issue. The issue of development along the Interstate remains with us, and it always will be with us as long as Vermonters are dedicated to preserving the beauty of the state’s grand vistas and as long as developers are willing to compromise that beauty.
The larger importance of the Randolph issue is what it says about Vermonters’ dedication to their environment and the cherished values that keep Vermont a place unique in the world. In Randolph, that dedication has experienced an infusion of new life.