Hartland ‘farm store’ gains key approval, but opposition remains

A rendering of the proposed Sunnymede Farms Store on Route 5 in Hartland, Vt. (Courtesy NBF Architects)

A rendering of the proposed Sunnymede Farms Store on Route 5 in Hartland, Vt. (Courtesy NBF Architects) Courtesy NBF Architects

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-06-2023 5:34 PM

HARTLAND — A proposed “farm store” in Hartland is one major step closer to breaking ground after being issued an Act 250 permit by the District 3 Environmental Commission last month, which had been reviewing the project for nearly a year.

The plan calls for the store, less than half a mile from Exit 9 on southbound Interstate 91, to sell products from Sunnymede Farms, a 600-acre cattle and maple sugaring operation near Hartland Four Corners. The business would also include a “take-out deli, bakery and small eating area,” the permit, issued on Sept. 18, states.

An Act 250 permit is often seen as a developer’s golden ticket, having made it over the hurdle of Vermont’s hallmark 1970 land use law. But the battle isn’t over for Sunnymede, which is owned by Florida real estate developer Aubrey Ferrao. 

The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, or TRORC, plans to appeal the commission’s decision to allow the project to proceed, Executive Director Peter Gregory said. The move would take the dispute to the environmental division of the Vermont Superior Court. 

In issuing the permit, the regional environmental commission based its decision partly on the argument that the Sunnymede project, while a retail store, “will contribute to and support Vermont’s working lands economy.”

The go-ahead was given unanimously by the commission, and “was a full-throated endorsement of this beautiful project whose only purpose is to support a local farm,” wrote Rutland attorney Jim Goss, who represents Sunnymede, in an email to the Valley News on Friday. 

Any efforts by TRORC to appeal the permit are “misguided on both the facts and the law and contrary to its own Plan’s purported goals of supporting Vermont farmers, agriculture and the working land scape,” Goss wrote.

In December 2018, Sunnymede LLC purchased the project site’s 17 acres of open land on Route 5 for $120,000, which was $10,000 less than the town had it assessed for.

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Act 250 holds developers accountable to a set of 10 criteria, including showing that a project doesn’t adversely impact air, water and soil quality, or the capacity of municipal and educational services. The law also allows neighbors that would be affected by the project to participate in a hearing, the findings of which are included in the environmental commission’s review.

Last September, Hartland residents voiced concerns before the District 3 commission about disturbances created by the proposed store, including an increase in traffic on Route 5, which leads into the center of town. Others were fearful that if a large retail store is made available at the interstate exit, shoppers won’t continue into Hartland to spend their money at the local businesses there.

The permit concluded that the project would not “cause unreasonable congestion” or unsafe road conditions, and exterior lighting at the store will be extinguished an hour after closing. An outdoor event space for “local musical talent” in the warmer months included in the initial proposal was struck from the plan.

To keep the “farm store” true to its name, the Act 250 permit requires that at least 60% of the products sold are produced on Sunnymede Farm. The space also “shall not be converted to a supermarket, hardware store, dry good store, pharmacy, or other primary retail store.”

The two-story building would be aesthetically in line with its surrounding environment, the permit claims. A parking lot with just under 50 spaces, including EV chargers, will be the gateway to a “Vermont-style barn with natural finished wood siding … the colors will be red with brown and gray natural wood hues,” the permit reads.

But paint colors don’t guarantee that the project is in line with the state’s goals, the town and regional planning commissions contend.

Act 250 requires that a development is in line with town and regional plans. The lot is located in Hartland’s “rural area,” designated as such by both plans. The label restricts it from certain kinds of development.

“Our regional plan has been quite clear for decades,” Gregory, of TRORC, said.

Out of concern that retail development contributes to sprawl, “retail (should be) located in downtowns and villages,” he said. “Not in rural areas or on highways.”

Environmental commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, follow state-generated guidance to determine whether or not a project contributes to sprawl, Gregory said.

“I believe they misread the guidance and misapplied (it) to the project,” he said. “The Hartland Planning Commission came to the same conclusions that we did.”

The town’s planning commission did not respond to emails requesting comment on the project.

That the state’s environmental commission took a year to permit the project “is a terribly long time,” Gregory said. Two-thirds of Act 250 permits are issued in less than 60 days, according to Vermont’s Natural Resources Board.

Additional construction permits can cause snags in the process. Almost 11 months after Sunnymede began the Act 250 process, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation granted the company a construction permit to build its own water system on the site.

Gregory also expects delays after TRORC files its appeal within 30 days of the permit’s issuance and the clash goes to court.

“The court system seems to be backed up a bit as well, so I’m not sure how quickly this will go either,” Gregory said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.