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Vergennes eyes franchise clause for new city plan

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — As the Vergennes Planning Commission nears the finish line for producing a draft for a new city plan, planners after much debate added provisions that, if adopted, would lay the groundwork for zoning laws to regulate franchise businesses like McDonald’s Restaurants.

Commission chairman Neil Curtis said the issue was “contentious” on the board. He described the proposed provisions as a compromise between those who did not want to create any restrictions on commerce, and those who did not want to allow chain businesses at all.

“People have deep-seated beliefs that we should just allow unfettered business development ... and there’s another set of people that want things as they are now, with locally owned businesses,” Curtis said. “And there’s a whole range of people between those two poles.”

Proposed language in the city plan refers to franchises as “formula businesses.” The “Land Use Section” of the draft plan — which will probably have its first public hearing on June 8 — adds an extra burden to applicants for such businesses.

According to an email from Curtis, it reads, “Proposals for formula based businesses shall be required to undergo a comprehensive community and economic impact review which includes examination of traffic, scenic and historic resources, tax revenue, city services, employment, the Central Business District, and the character of the City.”

Curtis said in an interview that the eventual intent is to insist that applicants conduct a study that would show the impact of such proposed business on the city, including job losses in related ventures, so that the Vergennes Development Review Board could make informed decisions.

“We would require the applicant do a study,” he said. “I do think it’s OK for us to look at the overall net impact of the business on the community ... Are there negative repercussions? ... Are we as a community better with it or without it?”

The planners’ draft defines a “formula business” as one that is required by contract to have elements that are “substantially identical to 30 or more other businesses located within the United States, regardless of the ownership of those businesses: name; if food is served, menu, ingredients, uniforms; trademark; logo; symbol; architectural design; signage; color scheme; merchandise, or any other similar standardized features.”

Curtis said planners had not intended to tackle the franchise question during the rewrite process, but when Ferrisburgh was surprised last fall by a proposal for a chain restaurant and convenience store on Route 7, they decided they needed to deal with the issue.

He said planners know they do not have a mandate to ban franchises, but that a survey that drew many responses last spring showed residents backed the way Vergennes appears now — and that franchises could permanently change the city’s look.

“We don’t have a clear mandate from the community through our out-reach efforts on whether to embrace or reject these business types,” Curtis wrote in an email. “The community is divided on that issue. We do have strong support to maintain the look, feel and vitality of our downtown.”

In response, for example, planners have proposed the following language for North Main Street that would directly affect chain architecture: “Businesses that are proposed for existing buildings, infill locations (vacant or underused sites), or as standalone structures must employ an architectural design that either reflects the local setting or can be demonstrated to fit in a contextual, harmonious manner with the character of its surroundings.”

In his email Curtis wrote, “In other words, we are suggesting a higher level of review, or standards ... for those business types. We are suggesting that for architecture, we don’t want a building designed in California for Florida to be dropped across from Kennedy Brothers.”

Planners will meet on April 20 and probably again on April 27 to put the finishing touches on their full rewrite. When they are done, they will call for public hearings, starting on June 8.

When the hearings are closed, they will make changes they believe are warranted based on public feedback and forward a final draft to aldermen. Aldermen then must hold at least two public hearings before adopting a final plan. If aldermen make substantial changes, the plan must be returned to planners to reboot the process. Aldermen hope to adopt a new city plan by Nov. 1, when the current plan expires.

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