Members of the city council in neighboring South Burlington are steamed about the vote, which will allow Burton Snowboards to move forward with a plan to host music venue Higher Ground at its Industrial Parkway campus.
In a strongly worded email Tuesday morning, South Burlington City Council vice chair Meaghan Emery chastised all 12 Burlington councilors for not involving their neighbors in the discussion. She explained that SoBu leaders, busy with various projects, hadn’t learned of the plan until last week. At that point, Emery and a colleague emailed her Burlington counterparts, while SoBu council chair Helen Riehle contacted Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s office on Monday to voice her concern, according to Emery.
The proposed music venue abuts the South Burlington town line, its popular Red Rocks Park and its historic — and quiet — Queen City Park neighborhood on Lake Champlain's Shelburne Bay. About 75 residents there signed a petition urging leaders in both cities to oppose the plan for Higher Ground to relocate.
“As you know, sometimes decisions take a little longer than planned, and when dozens of residents (the majority of an adjacent neighborhood) present a petition and three South Burlington Councilors (the majority of our Council) reach out to you with concerns, the fact that you simply pushed it through frankly speaks of disrespect and lack of due diligence,” Emery wrote in her email.
Chief among Emery’s concerns, she told Seven Days in a phone interview later Tuesday, is the possibility that drunken concertgoers will spill into Red Rocks Park, which she called the “crown jewel” of the suburban city. Emery worries the park could be trashed or worse: People could hurt themselves jumping into Lake Champlain off the park’s infamous cliffs, which has led to fatalities.
“It’s a recipe that really spells disaster,” Emery said. “I really would have liked for us to have been able to have a conversation about that, or at least have them reach out and hear from our recreation and parks director, our police, our public works director to really understand the issues that we’re facing at this park.”
She also worries the noise will disturb her constituents, as will the traffic. There are only two ways to access Industrial Avenue: from the north, via Home Avenue, and from the south, via Queen City Park Road, which marks the Burlington-South Burlington line.
Emery said the South Burlington council also met Monday night, and one councilor floated the idea of closing Queen City Park Road to traffic on nights Higher Ground hosts an event. The road includes a narrow one-lane bridge that could be hazardous for drivers leaving Burton, she said.
“When you’re coming back after being at a venue where alcohol has been consumed, you’re having fun — accidents can happen when it’s not the best road conditions,” Emery said. “We’re really looking for that to be addressed, and hopefully, it will be.”
The fraught relationship came to a head in recent years when Burlington approved the purchase and teardown of more than 145 homes under an FAA-funded program to compensate homeowners when airport noise is deemed intolerable under federal standards. South Burlington had no say in the matter, though it lost a chunk of affordable housing stock — and taxpayers.
“It would have been nice if we had had a conversation and been with them at the table before the decision had been made,” Emery said of the zoning issue. “We’re going to be directly impacted, so we should have been at the table.”
Contacted on Tuesday, Burlington City Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) told Seven Days that he hadn’t heard from any South Burlington officials and seemed incredulous that the suburban city would deign to meddle in Queen City affairs.
“Why would South Burlington be advising Burlington about what to do with its zoning regulations?” he said.
“Wherever your town line is, there’s another town right next to it,” he added.
While the zoning change allows Burton to open a music venue, the plans are far from set in stone. The business must first submit a proposal to the Burlington Development Review Board for a conditional use permit.
Justin Worthley, Burton’s senior vice president of human resources, said it’ll take the company three to six months to design the venue and compile all the information needed for the review. Burton must address five criteria: traffic, noise, environmental impacts, neighborhood impacts and the aesthetics of the building, Worthley said.
“[T]raffic and neighborhood is where we need to spend the most time,” he said.
Burton has already gotten bids to have an engineering firm conduct a traffic study that will model how cars will move both with and without the Champlain Parkway. Construction of the road is scheduled to begin by the end of the year. The parkway would likely ease traffic congestion through South End neighborhoods, including around Burton’s campus.
Worthley said the company is happy to work with residents and the DRB to make sure all the concerns about the facility are properly addressed. He hopes that the process would be done in time for the music venue to open by the end of 2020.
“We’ll definitely be open to talking with neighbors about concerns, and what can we do, and how do we get to a conclusion that keeps this moving forward,” Worthley said.
While the Burton veep said he’d heard from residents of Queen City Park, he hadn’t heard from South Burlington city councilors. Worthley wondered if those officials were motivated to speak out by a desire to keep Higher Ground on Williston Road — though Emery denied that was a factor.
“If they need a better spot, I understand they have to look for a better spot,” she said.
Members of the South Burlington Council will show up at Burlington DRB meetings in the hopes of having their concerns heard, Emery said.
"You can expect to see us there since you rejected our outreach last night," she wrote in her email. "We will make the strongest case possible in order to persuade the DRB and the public that Higher Ground is not a good fit for the area adjacent to Queen City Park neighborhood and Red Rocks Park. Believe me when I say, I wish it could have been handled differently."