Vermont Rail’s controversial project abuts The Nature Conservancy

The Vermont Rail System transfer station proposed for 19 acres west of Harbour Industries along Route 7 is being cleared for a new rail spur, salt storage facilities, office buildings, fuel tanker and heavy equipment storage. An aboveground storage tank fuel pad and Fleet Fuel island facility may also be planned for the land.
The Vermont Rail System transfer station proposed for 19 acres west of Harbour Industries along Route 7 is being cleared for a new rail spur, salt storage facilities, office buildings, fuel tanker and heavy equipment storage. An aboveground storage tank fuel pad and Fleet Fuel island facility may also be planned for the land.

The Nature Conservancy in Shelburne borders land on Route 7 being developed by Vermont Rail System for transfer station operations that are slated to include salt and fuel storage. The conservancy filed a petition to be included in the proceedings for Vermont Rail’s Act 250 permit.

The conservancy would like a cooperative solution that addresses the protection of their property and conservation interests, and meets the needs of the town and Vermont Rail, said Eve Frankel, director of communications at the conservancy.

“While Vermont Rail claims preemption, it is unclear to what extent that preemption claim extends,” Frankel said. “We have not heard when this abandonment proceeding will be taken up or decided.”

The conservancy is participating in the Act 250 process as a mechanism for fact-finding, Frankel said. “We have participated in the Act 250 process since 1990 in the original permit process because we believe that the conditions in the permit provided necessary and critical protections for our investment.”

The LaPlatte River Marsh Natural Area is an ecosystem of statewide significance, providing critical habitat, floodwater storage and water quality services by filtering nutrients out of the water before it hits Lake Champlain, Frankel said. “We all know Lake Champlain has been a very compromised body of water and that we as a state are spending millions of dollars on improving,” Frankel said. “We believe the salt sheds would have significant impacts on the watershed in this area.”

Alicia Daniel, University of Vermont field naturalist said, “The extent of the damage to the floodplain is remarkable even at a distance. The lack of a buffer next to the river will certainly be an erosion problem, not even to mention the impact on the wildness and beauty of this site. After the clear-cut, a bobcat began to hunt on the other side of Route 7. That bobcat was found with a broken leg and killed out behind the Shelburne Farm yard. We know this from tracking it. Displacing wildlife, putting salt in a floodplain, and setting the site up for erosion and loss of soils is just the tip of the impact iceberg.”

On March 16, when asked if any environmental impact studies had been conducted to date, Vermont Rail System President David Wulfson said, “Sorry. I’m not really able to talk details about the lawsuit but the project continues to move forward. We still have not received any information from the town about what it wants to see as far as additional project elements, but I understand the lawyers are working to set up a meeting.”

In an interview prior to litigation, Shelburne Director of Planning and Zoning Dean Pierce said the industrial zoning designation for the property west of Harbour Industries along Route 7 dates back many years. “I don’t know the entire history of the designation, but I believe the property’s close proximity to the railroad is a factor in the designation it has,” he said.

The Planning Commission (with input from prior owners, a real estate agent, a business owner, and groups like the Natural Resources and Conservation Committee) has considered changing the zoning for the property on more than one occasion, Pierce said. When the Planning Commission in 2011 got close to advancing a proposal to change the zoning, the property owner at the time, Mark Naud, withdrew his request for the change. And so, the property has retained its Commerce and Industry designation, Pierce said.

“Decisions concerning which zoning designation the property should have likely did not contemplate industrial or other development ever taking place without a local zoning and subdivision review,” Pierce said. “The idea that a particular type of land owner would enjoy a preemption of local and state land use regulations is not one that normally occurs to planning commissions.”

In Shelburne’s case, the town has been involved in the review of development proposals for the property going back to 1971, Pierce said. “In the late 1980s and 1990s the town reviewed plans for an industrial park on the property several times, applying conditions to the approval at every step.”

While conducting those reviews, the town was able to apply conditions to mitigate environmental impacts of the development, Pierce said.

Shelburne Selectboard chair Gary von Stange recently brought to light a state study conducted in 2000 that indicated the relocation of the Vermont Rail System facility from Burlington to Shelburne village was not compatible for trucking operations.

That Burlington and Rutland Railyard Relocation Feasibility Study reads, “The existing streets and land use would not be compatible for trucking operations necessitating the construction of a new access road.”

The engineering firm who prepared that report for the state and who are now hired by Vermont Rail System on the Shelburne project is Vanasse, Hangen, and Brustlin, Inc. (VHB).

VHB Managing Director Mark Colgan said, “The 2000 study reviews the feasibility of a site off Bay Road that is located 1.2 miles from U.S. Route 7. Bay Road itself was viewed as an insufficient access road for trucks traveling between U.S. 7 and the proposed rail yard site, therefore a new access road to U.S. 7 would be required.”

Shelburne Town Manager Joe Colangelo said the 2000 feasibility report and maps do not clearly state where the curb cut for that proposed project would have been. “The language is just vague enough,” Colangelo said.

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