Business & Economy

South Burlington rezones land for proposed Tesla dealership

A Tesla charges in a Brattleboro shopping center parking lot. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The South Burlington City Council has approved changes to the city’s land development regulations that pave the way for Tesla, the popular electric vehicle manufacturer, to open up a dealership and service center just off Shelburne Road.

Councilors voted unanimously Monday night to rezone a property once home to a Hannaford grocery store to allow automobile sales there, among other changes. The parcel is set back from Shelburne Road on Hannaford Drive, next to a Lowe’s home improvement store.

Tesla had asked the city earlier this year to change the parcel’s zoning so it could build a dealership there. MSK Attorneys, a Burlington-based law firm, wrote to the South Burlington Planning Commission in August on the company’s behalf, stating that Tesla saw the old grocery store site, which has been vacant since 2018, as a prime location.

No available property in the area already zoned for auto sales met the company’s needs, according to the letter. The planning commission approved the zoning changes at a meeting last month, sending them to the city council for final approval.

“We felt like there was an opportunity here to reuse an existing building that’s been mostly vacant and has not been redeveloped for housing or other uses,” Jessica Louisos, the chair of the planning commission, told city councilors Monday.

The city is expecting to receive a formal application from Tesla soon for construction of the dealership and service center, which would be the company’s first in Vermont. 

It would join more than a dozen other car dealers along Shelburne Road in South Burlington. Previously, the development regulations limited auto sales to parcels that bordered Shelburne Road; the changes now allow auto sales at the former Hannaford site, as well as the neighboring parcel currently occupied by Lowe’s.

Still, officials said the city has kept the amount of land zoned for auto sales about the same, because the new changes also shift several parcels that border Shelburne Road into a zoning district where auto sales aren’t permitted (no existing dealerships will be affected, according to Paul Conner, the city’s planning and zoning director).

A map of the zoning changes. Image courtesy of the South Burlington City Council

Louisos said the planning commission hopes this shift will make the parcels directly along the major thoroughfare more attractive for mixed-use development projects, such as the Larkin Terrace development at the intersection with Fayette Drive.

At the state level, officials just last year opened the door for electric vehicle makers to operate direct-to-consumer outlets for sales and maintenance.

Tesla requires that its cars be sold and serviced directly by the company rather than through third-party dealers, and its closest U.S. dealers to Vermont are in New York and Massachusetts.

Data released last month by the Vermont Vehicle and Automotive Distributors Association shows Teslas made up 1% of the roughly 29,000 new cars registered in the state from January to October 2022 (about 3.5% of new registrations nationally were Teslas). The number of new Tesla registrations in Vermont from January to October 2022 was up more than 5% — the third-highest among all brands — over the same period in 2021, per the data.

Helen Riehle, the council president, said she has heard little opposition to the proposed dealership. Speaking at Monday's meeting, state Rep. Robert Hooper, D-Burlington, said that he owns a Tesla and that, in addition to being more convenient for people who already own Teslas, a local showroom could also encourage more people to buy electric cars.

“I think that we need to recognize that not only will this be a boon for South Burlington, but it'll also be an economic boon for Vermont in itself,” Hooper said.

Matt Cota, government affairs director for the Vehicle and Automotive Distributors Association, said the trade organization supports plans for the new dealership because it will give customers who are shopping for cars more choices, especially for electric vehicles. 

(Cota also sits on the South Burlington City Council, but recused himself from Monday’s public hearing and vote on the project.) 

Shelburne Road, he said, “has been historically — and will continue to be, especially after this decision — a destination for Vermonters who want to get into a car and see how it drives, and see how it feels, to determine whether it’s a good fit for their family and for their budget.”  

Tesla’s press office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Teslas sit parked and charging at a group of superchargers in Williston on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.


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