By Carol Casey
The first question during the Planning Commission’s meeting on May 9 was whether Commission members believed they had any conflicts of interest regarding development plans for the O’Brien property. The question was raised after Sueayn Wood, the author of a letter in the Shelburne News, wrote that “these two groups [Selectboard and Planning Commission] are heavily pro-development.” Ms. Wood was present and stated that although she had requested members’ biographical information from the town manager, she was not given any and relied on internet sources to find their professional backgrounds before reaching her conclusions. Selectboard Vice Chair Allison Cranmer urged Wood not to make accusations before conducting a true investigation. Cranmer stated that as a new member of the Selectboard she had yet to cast a vote that could be construed as either pro- or anti-development. She suggested Wood and other interested citizens attend Selectboard and other town meetings for the facts. Planning Commission member Kate Lalley encouraged all Shelburne residents to serve the town in some capacity, but noted that the current “uncivil attitude” towards those who serve is likely to discourage participation. Commission Chair Brian Precourt stated that he had never done business with O’Brien Brothers. He added that the agency contacted him suggesting that Commissioner Dan Burks had a conflict of interest. Precourt and Burks met to discuss this, and Burks concluded that no conflict existed.
Larry Michaels, a representative of O’Brien Brothers Agency, then made a presentation about options for developing its nearly 189 acres of land, of which approximately 110 acres are located between Irish Hill and Thomas Road, 65 acres are in a land trust on the south side of the LaPlatte River, and an additional 23 acres border Spear Street. They would like to develop some 50 acres near Irish Hill Road for smaller, affordable housing units, and conserve 60 acres of the property. Since 2009, this area has been zoned as rural, requiring five-acre lots which would limit the development to approximately 32 homes. The agency would like the zoning changed to residential which would enable them to build somewhere between 70 and 125 units of varying sizes and styles within the same acreage. He showed possible alternatives of the 32-home development versus a clustered “neighborhood” development of upwards of 70 homes, but explained that “pen had not yet been put to paper to actually place the homes and how many.” He indicated that any development would be a four to 10-year process.
After his presentation, nearly one dozen residents rose to voice opposition. Michael Rees made the argument that the Town Plan precludes approval of a zoning change from rural to residential because the Town Plan clearly states that development should be discouraged in rural areas and that no changes to the designated growth areas in the Town Plan had been made. Some residents in opposition pointed out that Falls Road is currently one of the busiest roads in Shelburne and adding a major development would only increase traffic and hazards to pedestrians and bicyclists – including children going to and from school – on Falls Road and especially over the LaPlatte River bridge. Some residents argued that the town interests as a whole need to be put ahead of the concerns of any single developer, and if changes to the Town Plan or designated growth areas or sewer service boundaries are contemplated, they should be made after an open process involving all town residents and according to specific criteria.
Gail Albert, chair of the Natural Resources Committee, read a statement adopted by the committee which said, “We believe that the sewer service area should be expanded only when it fosters clustered higher density and mixed-use housing and simultaneously conserves the maximum amount of undeveloped agricultural and ecologically important land. As per the Town Plan, compact development is to be encouraged but not without regard to the conservation of exceptional natural resources. In regard to the O’Brien proposal, it would seem that as presented it would clearly satisfy both the goals.”
Resident Joanna Ralston suggested a compromise in which no more than 100 new residences would be permitted on lots somewhat smaller than five acres. Commission Chair Precourt reiterated that the Planning Commission members are trying to be responsive to citizens’ concerns, no votes have yet been taken, and more public hearings on this issue will be held.
Earlier in the meeting the Planning Commission reviewed specific amendments to the Town Plan recommended by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, and adopted many of them. No public comments on the Town Plan were offered. The Commission then closed the public hearing on the Town Plan, adopted it as amended and forwarded it to the Selectboard for consideration.
Because of the lengthy discussion of the O’Brien Brothers property development, the Commission deferred further consideration of the sewer service area boundaries until their next meeting on Thursday, May 23.