Northfield Clinic Plans Stir Controversy

by C.B. Hall

A nine-acre chunk of recreational land that many hope will become the site of an expanded medical clinic is generating controversy in Northfield. Developmental and conservation interests have been at odds over the site, owned by Norwich University and formerly part of its ski area.

The acreage recently received a zoning change from recreational to urban residential; the latter designation will allow for mixed use, including the 10,000-square foot medical facility. The plans still need to negotiate several hurdles: site plan approval from Northfield’s Planning Commission, a conditional use permit from the town’s zoning board of adjustment and Act 250 approval from the state’s District 5 Environmental Commission.

Some owners of adjoining properties feel blindsided by the proposal, originally filed last May. Northfield’s Conservation Commission has also put its reservations with the plan on record. And while the town’s selectboard approved the zoning change unanimously at a joint January 28 meeting, objections to the proposal continue.

In a memo to the Planning Commission last June, the Conservation Commission stated that two-thirds of town residents favored additional protection of recreational lands, a purpose that the rezone did not advance. Some dissenters have also pointed to the January rezone as “spot zoning,” accomplished in isolation from general concerns about rezoning.

The university, builder E.F. Wall of Barre, and Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC), whose Green Mountain Family Practice is slated to relocate to the facility, have spearheaded the initiative. The university will continue to own the land; Wall will own the building and lease it to CVMC. Lease terms are under negotiation.

For the moment, the site, part of the university’s Shaw Outdoor Center, remains the terminus of a sledding hill safely removed from roads, and the portal to a wide range of recreational pursuits on Northfield’s Paine Mountain.

The university’s chief administrative officer, Dave Magida, says that the medical building will only occupy three of the nine acres, but that “there may be some minor impact” on current recreational uses. The fate of the remaining six acres also invites questions. The selectboard added the nine-acre chunk to the urban residential zone because, geometrically speaking, it formed a triangular indentation in the existing zone.

The Conservation Commission’s fears center on the scope of rezoning in the area, as a general rezone of the town is looming. The recreational zoning of hundreds of abutting acres on Paine Mountain could be replaced, for example, by conservation zoning. That sounds green, but would in fact allow the entire mountain to be developed, albeit with large lots. Originally the selectboard had proposed shifting 26 acres of recreational land to the urban designation, but reduced that to the nine acres, at least in part because of the Conservation Commission’s reservations.

Conservation Commission Chair Pam Knox feels a site elsewhere in Northfield could have been selected for the medical facility. “We’re not opposed to development,” she says. “We just want things to be developed responsibly. The medical facility plan appears to have emerged suddenly.

Magida told The Bridge, “we started mentioning this to the town several years ago, on a less formal basis,” but could provide no specific dates or meeting minutes. Michele Braun, who administers zoning and planning matters for the town, said, “I don’t think [any discussion] was ever part of a formal meeting or hearing” such as would have generated an advance notification to owners of abutting properties.

The university’s Campus Master Plan Update, published in 2011 and covering the period up to 2019, made no mention of any new medical facility anywhere on university property; it did however envision improvements to the existing outdoor center. Those improvements were completed in 2012, underwritten by a gift from a Norwich alumnus.

In May 2013, adjacent landowners received notice that the current plan to develop the site was coming before the Planning Commission. At that meeting, neighbor Lise Ewald recalls, “there was this drawing of a building – we were totally blindsided.” Ewald finds Magida’s account of events less than forthcoming. “He told me [last May], ‘You should have known this is coming.’ I don’t know where he’s getting that.”

The Planning Commission rejected that site development plan in May, since it required the zoning change that the selectboard has now enacted.

Norwich owns about 1200 acres, although only about 100 within the immediate vicinity of the village. Responding to charges that no other sites were considered for the offices, Magida concedes that allegation but describes the choice of the outdoor center as “a nice merging of interests” that places medical care within walking distance of the campus and village and takes advantage of the exceptional opportunity posed by the parcel’s availability.

The location “just makes sense for everyone,” concurs Richard Morley, CVMC’s vice president for support services.

Ewald demurs. She notes that the development will include, in addition to the building’s quarter-acre footprint, a 52-car parking lot and night lighting, and mentions such additional unpleasantries as dumpsters and air conditioning noise. “I admit, right up front. I am totally NIMBY. I’m not against the clinic – I just don’t want it here.”

Gretchen Dunn, another abutter, takes a similar stance. She adds that the nine acres, under recreational zoning, formed a sort of break in the urban zone, and that this intermingling of residential and recreational areas was just what good zoning should include, not remove, as the selectboard has done. “We need to…maybe push back against Norwich and say, ‘Can you look at other properties?’ she says.”

But Ewald, like many in Northfield, discerns the bottom line: the undertaking will mean urgently needed employment in a town that is losing jobs. Ultimately that will make the issue one of how, and not whether, the medical facility gets built.

“A member of the selectboard told me, with losing WallGoldfinger and the main office of the Northfield Savings Bank, tax dollars are just rushing out of here. They [the selectboard] want the tax revenue.”

The March 17 meeting of the Northfield Planning Commission postponed final consideration of an application by E.F. Wall for the development of Central Vermont Medical Center’s (CVMC’s) proposed new Northfield facility.

In a discussion lasting close to two hours, Wall representatives, Norwich University’s Dave Magida, CVMC’s Richard Morley, and three owners of abutting properties traded opinions and debated possible courses of action on the development, and particularly how to mitigate its impacts on neighboring properties.

The site’s neighbors raised concerns about noise, night lighting, the planned stormwater retention facility, and lack of privacy – and, by implication, about possible losses in property values.

Some commission members noted that Wall had not planned satisfactorily for sidewalk access to the facility or indicated how visual screening–planting of trees, essentially–would be effected. The lack of such information and the sheer profusion of details falling within the commission’s purview motivated the decision to postpone voting on the application until the body’s next regular meeting on April 21.

While the meeting’s tone remained polite throughout, Magida sounded frustrated in reacting to the postponement of final commission action.

“We’re going to have to have you guys make some decisions in April,” he said. “We don’t want to lose another month. We can’t do that.”

Wall representative Bob Lord told the meeting that his firm wants to begin construction by September 19. “We’re thinking maybe the first of June” 2015 as the facility’s opening date, Morley added.

However, the uncertainties of the necessary approval under Act 250 still loom when and if the Planning Commission gives the thumbs up, and missing the September 19 target date would delay the start of construction until the following spring and push back the June 1 opening accordingly. If the commission’s deliberateness furnishes any indication, such a delay is very possible.

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