The forest and the trees: development of the O’Brien property

I am a lifelong resident of Shelburne, and the owner of property that is adjacent to the subject lands owned by the O’Brien family.  After months of following this debate in the newspaper, I feel it is the right time to share my thoughts and, more importantly, to identify the real question before the Planning Commission, which I have not yet seen addressed.

There have been countless editorials in this newspaper debating the merits of an application for development that does not yet exist: traffic counts; taxpayer impacts; environmental impacts; etc., are all important, but they are issues to be discussed when an application is made to a permitting agency. If these impacts are factually proven they will be fixed, or the development will fail to get permits.

The question before the Planning Commission is different. The Planning Commission is not “permitting” an application. They are creating a framework for an application to be made. An analogy: the board of directors at Apple may have had doubts the iPod could work, but they still gave funding to research and development. The path may have been difficult, and laden with potential problems, but a functional and optimal product was there if all parties came to the table willing to work hard at getting it right. The question for the Planning Commission is similar:

Does the rezoning of a small portion of the rural district to allow a compact development on Irish Hill Road, in exchange for the permanent conservation of 65 acres of land, and continued agricultural use of another 50 acres, benefit the town and enhance the goals of the current Town Plan?

For this resident, the answer is yes.

There is one inevitable fact for non-conserved rural land less than 15 minutes from Burlington.  It will be developed.  The question is how, when, and with what impact or benefit for the town.  The Town Plan acknowledges this on page 18: “Where development does occur in the Rural Area, encourage a clustered pattern that…conserves open land for uses such as agriculture and passive recreation.” Is the town now going to take a contrary position on this and tell the owners to construct houses spread out on many more acres with far greater environmental impacts?

Regardless, Town Plans come and go, and zoning districts and boundaries change in time. The best-laid plans of our current Planning Commission will inevitably change as the population of this area grows in the next 20 years.  It may be that the town will vote to rezone the entire Thomas Farm more densely and pave the way for much more extensive development in 2030. At that time homesteads on five or 10 acres may subdivide and sprawling development will appear everywhere on the parcel.  Construction technology may allow for current “non-developable” areas to be built.  To the contrary, a conservation easement will exist in perpetuity, and this is a current discernable fact.

Let’s think about what better serves the community. Deferring the inevitable as our population grows and technology extends the reach of construction, or accepting it, working to get it right, and creating a permanent piece of conserved land for future generations to enjoy.  Let’s not kill the idea before we see the specifics.

Andrew Gill, Shelburne

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