By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — On Tuesday last week Champlain Oil Co. and two Ferrisburgh landowners filed a new proposal for a combined McDonald’s Restaurant, Jiffy Mart convenience store and gas station on Route 7, while on Wednesday the Ferrisburgh Planning Commission met with another packed room of opponents to discuss a petitioned zoning change that could stop that plan.
The new proposal is no longer a preliminary site plan, as was the case in September. Champlain Oil Co., known as COCO, this time submitted a full application for the three-pronged business on the site of the former Ferrisburgh Roadhouse and Burdick Country Kitchen.
And the plan now addresses problems in the preliminary proposal by including an additional 2.13 acres owned by Greg and Susan Burdick of Vergennes next to and south of the 2.5-acre former restaurant plot, which is owned by Marcos and Claudia Llona of Shelburne.
With the additional land under contract, Ferrisburgh planners believe the COCO proposal would probably receive a conditional use permit under current zoning law. Currently, gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants are conditionally allowed uses along much Route 7. But officials said proposals can only be denied if they do not meet setback or acreage requirements or do not to fit the character of the neighborhood, and denials can be difficult to justify.
“Now they’re within the regulations,” said planning commission member Annie Cohn on Thursday, the day after planners met to discuss the petitioned zoning change. “Zoning can’t do a lot.”
But if — and probably only if — the town adopted the zoning change called for in the petition, there might be grounds for denial.
“If we let this petition drop, then nothing else can be done,” Cohn said.
The petition requested a zoning change for “commercially zoned areas” on Route 7 “to allow for no more than one gas station, convenience store, and/or fast food restaurant within each of our three commercial zones.”
It stated that those areas are “too small in road distances (one-half mile or less in each designated area) to allow for safe ingress and egress of more than one of these businesses in each zone,” and requested the change “to ensure the safety of all motorized vehicles and passengers” traveling along Route 7.
The proposed McDonald’s-Jiffy Mart site is almost directly across Route 7 from an existing gas station/convenience store/deli.
Planners said they heard unanimous opposition to the September COCO proposal at their Nov. 19 and Dec. 17 meetings, mostly centered on the McDonald’s component. Planner Bob Beach and Town Clerk Chet Hawkins estimated that roughly 75 people attended the November meeting. Cohn said about three dozen people, including 15 Vergennes Union Middle School students studying the question, showed up last Wednesday.
Selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said selectmen have heard from residents who are not opposed.
“Some of the board members have heard both sides,” Lawrence said. “We’ve heard negative and positive.”
In a September interview, Marcos Llona said there is a need for a truck stop on Route 7 between Route 22A and Chittenden County, and that this proposal would meet that need.
Still, Cohn said planners will support the overwhelming testimony they have heard, but that they believe the language of the petition is not precise enough.
“The wording as it is now ... is just not a clear statement,” she said.
At issue is whether each of the elements mentioned would be banned if they were proposed separately, or whether the petitioners intended to prevent them only if they were grouped. Hawkins also said in an earlier interview that some are concerned the proposed bylaw could allow for separate ownership of a gas station, convenience store and fast-food restaurant on adjacent lots.
Cohn said planners have taken technical suggestions from zoning administrator Tom Mansfield and town attorney James Carroll that could clarify the language without changing the petition’s intent.
“We are hearing the people. We know what the people want,” Cohn said. “Now it’s just putting it together.”
The next step will be forwarding the petition and the recommended changes to selectmen. The selectboard would then have the option of calling for a town-wide vote, an action Cohn said could be taken after a public hearing that could confirm that any new language simply clarified petitioners’ intent and did not change it.
“We can’t put words into their mouths. We can only play with the technicality of the words,” she said. “We’re suggesting strongly it go to a public meeting so they can say, ‘That’s what our intent is.’”
In a November interview, Beach said planners also have to be careful with language not to create any unwanted unintended consequences that would damage other businesses in Ferrisburgh. Beach also said officials believe the town, with voter approval, could also adopt the petitioned zoning change in the short term, and then replace it later on a permanent basis with a more comprehensive law, again only with voter approval.
Meanwhile, Lawrence said selectmen are in wait-and-see mode.
“At this point in time we haven’t seen the petition and haven’t had a recommendation from the planning board. When all that falls into place, we will very carefully weigh all the information,” she said.
Lawrence said selectmen would be even-handed.
“The board will be fair and listen to all sides and weigh all the evidence,” she said.
COCO’s plans call for a 4,800-square-foot building, including a 2,200-square-foot, 34-seat McDonald’s with a drive-up window. The remaining 4,600 square feet would be devoted to the Jiffy Mart.
The building would sit near on the site of the former Roadhouse and Country Kitchen building, which burned last year. Gasoline pumps would run parallel to Route 7 in front of that structure, while diesel pumps and nine truck parking spaces would be sited on the 2.13-acre parcel added to the project.
A home on the rear of the 2.5-acre parcel would be removed, and 40 parking spaces added on the other three sides of the McDonald’s-Jiffy Mart building. Plans call for a 106-foot by 24-foot canopy over the gasoline pumps and a 72-foot by 24-foot canopy over the diesel pumps. Access from the highway would be by way of two 40-foot-wide curb cuts 250 feet apart. The project might also need an Act 250 permit, according to the filing.
Cohn said she believed that if town officials decide to proceed with a zoning change COCO — and other applicants for new ventures along most of Route 7 — would have to proceed on parallel tracks with its application, having to satisfy both existing and proposed zoning.
“If this petition is held and worked through, then things can’t happen as quickly,” Cohn said. “The business that wants to come in would ... have to meet both until a vote has been made to adopt or drop (the petitioned zoning change).”