A Ferry Company’s Planned Facility Sails Into a Storm in the Champlain Islands | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Development

A Ferry Company’s Planned Facility Sails Into a Storm in the Champlain Islands

By

The Cumberland car ferry - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • The Cumberland car ferry

Lake Champlain Transportation is facing stiff headwinds on two development projects as it seeks to shift some of its maintenance operations from the Burlington waterfront to its ferry crossing in rural Grand Isle.

In Burlington, the company has proposed razing several maintenance buildings at its King Street ferry dock and replacing them with a sleek 6,500-square-foot restaurant. Questions have arisen as to whether the change meets public use and access requirements on the waterfront.

In Grand Isle, Lake Champlain Transportation has encountered strong opposition from neighbors as it seeks local approval for a 30,000-square-foot maintenance, storage and office building just south of the Gordons Landing ferry terminal.

The two projects are linked because the Burlington restaurant plan is unlikely to move forward until the company finds a new home for the maintenance functions housed in the three buildings slated for demolition.

The proposals follow the company's decision two years ago to halt service, at least temporarily, on the seasonal tourist-oriented crossing between Burlington and Port Kent, N.Y. Meanwhile, it made sense to move maintenance operations to Grand Isle, a year-round ferry crossing that is the lake's busiest, the company has indicated.

Neither Lake Champlain Transportation president Trey Pecor nor other company officials responded to Seven Days' multiple requests to speak about the two projects.

The most vocal opposition to the company's plans has sprung up in Grand Isle, where neighbors call the proposed development inconsistent with local zoning, a potential threat to water quality and a bad fit for the area.

"It would be great for our town to have some business tax base here," said Deb Lang, a hospice manager who lives across the road from the site of the proposed project. "But they want to put a large industrial building on the waterfront in an otherwise residential neighborhood. I just don't think that's the right location."

Company officials who attended a Zoom meeting of the Grand Isle Development Review Board last month appeared unprepared for the number and sophistication of questions critics raised, several neighbors in attendance said.

"They were shell-shocked," said Grand Isle resident Josie Leavitt, a well-known local comedian. "I don't think they were anticipating the level of pushback they got."

According to the company, workers in Burlington must travel the 24 miles to Grand Isle to diagnose mechanical problems, deliver and install new parts, and perform maintenance. It makes more sense to have those functions on-site, the company has argued.

Lake Champlain Transportation's ferry routes - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Lake Champlain Transportation's ferry routes

The Gordons Landing ferry crossing is a vital piece of the region's transportation infrastructure. Lake Champlain Transportation makes 22,000 annual landings and departures every year and ferries more than a million passengers between the island and Cumberland Head near Plattsburgh, N.Y., according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Ferries have run between Cumberland Head and Grand Isle, one of the narrowest spots on Lake Champlain, since European settlers began operating them there in the late 1700s.

Lake Champlain Transportation, founded in 1824 and owned by the Pecor family since 1976, purchased two residential properties just south of the terminal in recent years. It plans to keep the two modest waterfront homes and construct the new 35-foot-tall building and parking areas on the rest of the property, which is zoned for "commercial recreational" uses.

Neighbors' concerns include the noise of heavy machinery and truck deliveries, tree removal, and the risk of contaminants being released into the lake and fouling the island's water supply.

Some of the most incisive criticism has come from the neighbor just south of the project site, Laura Heaberlin, who put together a 92-page presentation meticulously scrutinizing aspects of the company's development application. She describes that application as incomplete, noting that its project description was a mere seven words: "Construct corporate offices, storage and maintenance facilities."

She also argued that, according to more detailed project descriptions the company filed on state environmental permit applications, the building would effectively be used for industrial purposes despite Lake Champlain Transportation's claim to the contrary.

In exchanges with state regulators, project engineer Jay Buermann explained that the building would be used for "automotive maintenance/repair of their vehicle fleet, as well as welding, electrical shop, a mechanical shop, wood shop, sandblasting, and a painting booth" needed to maintain the ferries, docks and ticket booths.

Heaberlin compared those uses to the ones described in the town's zoning rules and argued that the company's plans closely fit the definition of industrial use, not the commercial recreational zoning that covers the coastal property.

While "storage and repair" are listed in the town's description as allowable uses in the commercial recreational district, Heaberlin argued that the code was written with low-impact uses, such as a golf course, in mind — not heavy industry, such as a ferry company.

Heaberlin contends that the company should locate its new building in the town's industrial park, a few miles inland, instead of on residential property just over the fence line from the home she and her partner purchased last year.

"In my mind, there are important reasons why the lakeshore is not zoned for industrial uses, and I believe this is an industrial facility," she said in a recent interview.

While she knew the neighboring property was owned by the ferry company when she purchased her home last fall, the couple never imagined that the industrial uses later proposed would be permitted in the area, she said.

Of particular concern to her is the risk of a spill that could contaminate the area's drinking water; one of the intake pipes for the Grand Isle Consolidated Water District is located offshore from the ferry property. That puts the property in a designated Source Protection Area that state Department of Environmental Conservation literature indicates should avoid industrial and automotive repair land uses, Heaberlin said in her presentation.

The project received a shoreline protection permit in late April from state water quality regulators, even though construction of the building, parking and driveways would result in the removal of most of the trees on the 3.3-acre site.

The majority of the new building and impervious surfaces would be just outside of the 250-foot-deep shoreline protection zone.

Regulators noted that the new impervious surfaces inside the zone would be more than 100 feet from water, on less than a 20 percent slope, and include a new swale to slow stormwater runoff, according to the DEC.

That's failed to assuage the concerns of residents, who say that even after two public meetings they don't have a clear picture of the kinds of activities that would occur.

"They don't seem to want to share what they're doing with the public, so to me that's concerning," said Mitch Barchi, a Dallas resident who owns a nearby waterfront home. "Until now, I think they've kept this very under wraps."

Barchi said he worries that the project would detract from the peaceful character of the area, harming the vacation rental prospects for the $1 million home where he plans to eventually retire.

Some of the many questions may be answered at a Grand Isle Development Review Board meeting on Wednesday, July 7. Town officials said board members could not comment on a pending matter.

An architect's rendering of a new restaurant proposed for Lake Champlain Transportation's ferry dock in Burlington - COURTESY OF WIEMANN LAMPHERE ARCHITECTS
  • Courtesy Of Wiemann Lamphere Architects
  • An architect's rendering of a new restaurant proposed for Lake Champlain Transportation's ferry dock in Burlington

Meanwhile, in Burlington, the ferry company's restaurant project would further transform a waterfront district historically dominated by railroads and shipyards into a more pedestrian-friendly, recreational destination.

Conceptual drawings envision the proposed restaurant as a larger version of the popular Stowe eatery Doc Ponds. It would be built on the northern edge of the ferry dock property, a life ring's throw from tropical-themed restaurant and bar the Spot on the Dock. The Spot opened in 2017 at Lake Champlain Transportation's Ferry Dock Marina, where dozens of pleasure craft are berthed.

Following a raft of questions about public access from the city's Development Review Board earlier this year, however, the restaurant proposal appears adrift.

"Right now, it's just in limbo, and they are deciding what they want to do," Steve Roy, the project's architect, said last week.

Even if the Grand Isle development can move forward, the King Street site still faces a number of public access issues. One of the challenges of the restaurant project has been the company's goal of trying to maintain its ability to work on ferries in the deepwater areas of the marina in Burlington Harbor, Roy said.

It has been tricky trying to pack a large restaurant, public access areas, and space for cranes and other heavy equipment around the dock, Roy said.

"They are trying to fit a number of competing uses next to each other, to some degree," Roy said.

It's not clear why the company is still angling to preserve its ability to work on ferries at the King Street dock since there are no ferries there. While none of its vessels has run from Burlington since 2019, the company website states that the halt is temporary. "We will keep you updated as things change," it says.

Burlington officials are concerned about the loss of the ferry, which was an important transportation link despite rising ticket costs and less frequent service in recent years, according to Brian Pine, director of the Community Economic Development Office.

He noted that millions of federal dollars have been spent in Burlington Harbor with an eye toward preserving the service. "Everything was always designed around maintaining a ferry lane," Pine noted.

The Pecor family, through its foundation, has donated widely to charitable causes in the Champlain Valley for decades. The ferry company has also benefited from significant state and federal subsidies over the years, including $600,000 in 2009 to help it install more efficient diesel engines in its ferries.

Rick Sharp, who has fought for public access to the waterfront for decades, said Lake Champlain Transportation is doing the right thing by ending ferry service from a property that has effectively been operated, in his view, "as a junkyard" for decades. But he said the company may be trying to have it both ways by maximizing the profits from the property with a second restaurant while maintaining just enough of a ferry operation to claim it is performing a public benefit.

All downtown waterfront properties — including the King Street dock — built on filled-in areas of the lake are held in a public trust by the state and need to meet a legal test showing that the use is in the best interests of the public, Sharp noted.

An active ferry service clearly fits that bill; in its absence, continuing to claim such a public benefit would be "a sham," he said.

"It sounds to me like they've talked to their lawyers and their lawyers told them that as long as you're using it for a ferry purpose, then there hasn't been a change of use, and therefore the public trust doctrine doesn't come up," Sharp said.

Trey Pecor's father, Ray Pecor, proposed building a 75- to 90-room inn on the dock in the late 1990s and said he would try to persuade the legislature to change the public trust laws to permit it. The inn was never built, a result Sharp said was almost certainly due to the elder Pecor's realization that lawmakers couldn't change a legal principle established by the Vermont Supreme Court.

"The legislature can't give away that right," Sharp said. "It belongs to the people."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Grand Rile"