Business & Economy

Proposal for farm store in Hartland meets resistance

A rendering of the proposed Sunnymede Farms Store on Route 5 in Hartland. Image courtesy of NBF Architects

This article written by Frances Mize first appeared in the Valley News on Sept. 22.

HARTLAND — The Hartland Planning Commission, as well as the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, have voiced opposition to the proposed development of “a farm outlet store” a half-mile from the village.

Arguments played out in real time Monday as representatives from the two commissions, Hartland residents, business owners and lawyers attended a public hearing before the District 3 Environmental Commission.

The regional environmental commission plays a leading role in deciding whether proposed building projects adhere to Act 250, Vermont’s primary land use and development law. Securing an Act 250 permit is the largest hurdle standing in the way of breaking ground on Sunnymede Farms Shop, which would be an “outlet” for Sunnymede Farms and related products “with a take-out deli, bakery and small eating area,” according to the Act 250 application, filed in June.

Sunnymede Farms, a 600-acre cattle farm and maple sugaring operation near Hartland Four Corners, is owned by Florida real estate developer Aubrey Ferrao. The property is enrolled in the state’s current use program, which gives property tax breaks to working farm and forest land. The farming operation on Ferrao’s land is managed by Hartland resident Dennis Potter.

“Working farms in Vermont are really special places,” Jeremy Matosky, owner of Williston-based Trudell Consulting Engineers, which has worked on the proposal, said at the hearing. “That’s the vision here — to sell local products in a really special building.”

The proposed development has been a hot-button issue in Hartland for several months, as the lot is located in Hartland’s “rural area,” which is under restrictive development regulations in the town plan. The 17 acres of open land on Route 5, less than a half-mile from Interstate 91’s Exit 9 South, was purchased at a tax sale in December 2018 for $120,000, more than $10,000 less than it was assessed for. Still in question is whether or not the Sunnymede store — which would be housed in a two-story building of almost 7,500 square feet next to a roughly 45-spot parking lot — is the “traditional Vermont farm outlet store” that it calls itself in the application.

The Hartland Planning Commission sees the project as a “commercial retail business,” it said in a statement. “As such, it does not comply with the town plan that only allows low density residential development with home occupations in the rural district.”

Linda Genovese, a property owner near the proposed site, agrees. “It’s not a farm stand,” Genovese said at the hearing. “It’s a commercial enterprise.”

The application’s “characterization of the Project as a farm outlet store does not transform it into a non-retail establishment,” Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission said in a statement.

Peter Gregory, executive director of Two Rivers, elaborated: “It’s a retail operation that happens to sell a lot of food and farm products.”

The Hartland Selectboard has yet to release a statement on the development.

The Act 250 application states that, among other products, the store will sell beef, pork, chicken, lamb, syrup and honey.

“This is not a Dollar General or a McDonald’s,” said Jim Goss, a Rutland attorney representing Sunnymede.

In 2017, just under a quarter of Vermont farms were selling directly to consumers, according to census data from the Agency of Agriculture. Thirty-five percent of surveyed visitors to the state went to farms or farmers markets.

But McDonald’s or not, some argue that a large outlet right off the highway exit might keep Hartland visitors from venturing to businesses farther into the village’s center. “I’m concerned about the precedent it will set for this town as far as more building goes,” Gretchen Ocasio, owner of Skunk Hollow Tavern on Brownsville Road, said at the hearing. “I’m also concerned about the businesses in this town that are already here being affected.”

Matosky, the engineer on the project, added that while Act 250 is designed to balance the economic needs of Vermonters with environmental impacts, “it’s not designed for people to use to prevent projects that they really don’t like for personal reasons.”

A timetable for the three-member District 3 Commission to act on the permit has not been finalized.

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