Town of Essex officials say a state agency’s failure to officially recognize its industrial park could undermine decades of local zoning codes and threaten future development.
For the second time in the last year, the district Act 250 commission will soon determine if the Saxon Hill Industrial Park meets statutory definitions that allow developers to pay a 1-to-1 mitigation fee when impacting primary agricultural soils instead of twice that amount.
The Vt. Agency of Agriculture first challenged the designation last year during a permit review for Al Senecal’s 400-acre subdivision. The commission eventually ruled an eight-acre portion of the project indeed met industrial park standards but withheld judgment on the rest until Senecal offered further proposals.
He’s since submitted another plan for a nine-lot subdivision within one of his four original parcels. The proposal, which would increase impacted soils to about 100 acres, prompted the agency’s second test and
inspired a strongly-worded letter from the town asserting its defined the area as an industrial park for four decades.
The town has zoned the area as “Resource Preservation District-Industrial” since 1977. The district designates about 40 percent for industrial development and sets the rest aside for recreation and conservation.
Diane Bothfeld, the agency’s director of administrative services, said there’s no evidence showing the Act 250 commission recognized the area as an industrial park prior to 2006, nor did it specify in its final report whether the entire swath of land earned the designation.
“They left the door open in their first decision and didn’t make it crystal clear,” Bothfeld said.
Senecal initially opposed paying any fee because no other industrial user there had. He has since agreed to pay about $300,000.
Though the total represents a 1-to1 ratio, he views it less as a compromise and more as an attempt to put “extra money in the state coffers.”
“It was more like a stick-up,” he said.
If the commission backs the agency’s claim, however, Senecal would face the 2-to-1 ratio, a concerning possibility for town officials, who say the precedent would impede growth in the RPD-I.
Businesses there include Revision Military, Autumn Harp, Reinhart Foodservice and, soon, Blodgett Oven, among others. Most development has been consistent with industrial uses, the town argues, while also containing secondary uses like recreation and office space.
The disagreement isn’t the first opposition Senecal has faced since purchasing the land in 2014.
To finalize the 400-acre subdivision, he agreed to a settlement with the town that conveyed about 245 acres in exchange for approval to extract about 28 acres of sand. Many residents opposed the deal, which marked the culmination of a decades-long dispute over proper use of the Saxon Hill Forest land.
The nine-lot subdivision would host eight lots ranging from about two to 14 acres, accessed by an extension of Thompson Drive and a new cul-de-sac, Red Pine Circle. The ninth parcel, about 110 acres, contains no proposed development but is the site of the planned sand extraction.
Senecal’s application shows two local businesses relocating: Haematologic Technologies, which manufactures high-quality plasma proteins for in vitro research at its current River Rd. facility, and Northern Lights Rock and Ice, which operates off Essex Way but is facing an expiring lease.
He’s also planning a 48,600-square foot building that could host up to four tenants, and a temporary parking lot.
“This is the final hurdle,” he said.