By Mara Brooks, Contributor
Two board members oppose decision to approve controversial driveway.
The proposed Vermont Commons Education Center is one step closer to becoming a reality.
Despite the objections of multiple residents and Selectboard member Louise McCarren and Vice-Chair Frank Tenney, the board at its regular meeting Monday approved a highway access permit application for the proposed VCS Education Center. The decision follows the ZBA’s Dec. 11 conditional use approval of the controversial development.
In past months, longtime resident Sarah Thompson has raised concerns about sharing her small, unpaved driveway with the school, despite VCS’s plan to widen the existing curb cut by 25 feet. Thompson and other neighbors suggested VCS make a new curb cut for its own use to the south of Thompson’s property and closer to the school’s own parking lot.
The issue is that the existing driveway, Thompson’s only access to her property, technically sits on the parcel now owned by VCS. Thompson does not hold an easement for the driveway, but the school has repeatedly stated it plans to give her one.
Those opposing the shared curb cut warn that poor visibility caused by a utility pole compounded by an influx of inexperienced student drivers will create dangerous traffic conditions along Spear Street.
“I’m not in support of the curb cut at all,” McCarren said Monday. “There is a total obstruction [caused by the utility pole], and we’re going to have a lot of inexperienced drivers down there.”
McCarren suggested the fix should be to “move the curb cut much further to the south or get the site of the utility pole changed.”
Tenney pointed out that presently the curb cut is used by one resident, but the proposed change would include “two-way traffic” with an education center.
Member Matt Krasnow said that such issues were not the Selectboard’s to address.
“That’s largely an issue that is before the Zoning Board,” Krasnow said. “The Selectboard’s job is very narrow.”
Neighbor Sara Shays said she was “very, very concerned” about safety issues involving Thompson’s driveway.
“Sarah’s lived there her whole life,” Shays said. “It’s safer for everybody to have their own access out.”
Krasnow said it should be noted that VCS had agreed to make “two improvements to safety” by removing two trees to promote visibility and “significantly changing the sloping grade downhill on Spear Street” by extending Thompson’s driveway.
“Based on the application and the conditions in the driveway, it seems like safety is being improved,” Krasnow said. “I feel responsible to not take on the obligations and authority that should be considered by the Zoning Board, the Planning Commission, and the DRB.”
But Thompson said when she attempted to discuss her concerns with the PC and ZBA she was told to take it up with the Selectboard.
“And now that I’m here, you’re saying that’s a Zoning Board or a Planning Commission thing,” Thompson said. “So, I feel trapped. I feel like I don’t have any options.”
Thompson added that although the PC decided she should be given a right of way for the driveway, VCS had yet to provide her with one.
“So, I feel like my hands are tied for anything to do with the driveway,” Thompson said.
VCS Head of School Dexter Mahaffey said it was true the school had yet to provide Thompson with an easement.
“It is a quid pro quo condition of that permit, so it is a requirement that we deliver [the easement] to Sarah if we want to act upon that permit,” Mahaffey said. “So, we will deliver that as it’s a condition that we must meet, and we fully intend to.”
Thompson’s attorney Joseph Obuchowski said he needed to “push back a little bit” on Mahaffey’s statements.
“You can ask Sarah how long she’s been negotiating with the school and how much process she’s made [in obtaining the easement],” Obuchowski said.
Neighbor Gary Landrigan said he thought a curb cut to the south of Thompson’s driveway was a better, and safer, option.
“The view line to the south is pretty good,” Landrigan said. “The proposed alternative site would be between the two trees they’re talking about taking down [to improve visibility], and the grade correction is lesser.”
Tenney said, while the Selectboard typically allows only one access point per property, there is no rule “that people can only have one access point.”
Member Lewis Mudge pointed out that the Selectboard had not been asked to approve a second curb cut.
“We’re not being asked to approve a second one; we’re almost being asked to force it on landowners that don’t want one,” Mudge said. “I haven’t been convinced from a legal standpoint we need to request this second curb cut. This [application] has passed the transportation agency’s design guidelines.”
ZBA Chair Lane Morrison defended the Zoning Board’s decision to grant conditional use for the project.
“We reviewed the access. The Vermont Commons School has access to the north side of the property, [and] we requested to make it 25 feet wider,” Morrison said. “There’s a 500-foot visibility both north and south. Zoning recommended that there be no parking on Spear Street.”
Morrison said that VCS has 60 students, or the equivalent to two buses, who will only visit the education center between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
“The driveway has been approved. Vermont Commons is good to go unless there’s an appeal,” Morrison said.
He said Thompson’s concerns are her own to address.
“My feeling is it’s the responsibility of the landowner, not the Vermont Commons School,” Morrison said.
Mudge moved to approve the highway access permit. Tenney and McCarren opposed.
The motion narrowly passed 3-2.
Krasnow then offered to meet with Thompson to “get a sense of the different topics” causing her concern “and then maybe come back to the board to see if there’s any areas where we could have positive movement.”
Thompson said she would be interested in meeting with Krasnow.
Selectboard Chair Jim Faulkner told Thompson to contact Town Administrator Dean Bloch to set the meeting up.