- Michael Tonn
Queen City Park is the kind of place where people know their neighbors. The densely settled cove on South Burlington's northern edge is a collection of winding, dead-end streets with views of Shelburne Bay. There are no sidewalks, so neighbors stand in the street to chat. They wave at passing cars and notice if they aren't from around here.
Despite its proximity, the insular community feels a world away from bustling Burlington, and the residents want to keep it that way. So when they learned that the state's largest music venue could set up shop across the street from their neighborhood's entrance, they prepared to fight.
For the last 18 months, their group, Citizens for Responsible Zoning, has battled Burton Snowboards over the company's plans to bring Higher Ground to an unused warehouse on Queen City Park Road, just a few feet inside the Burlington city line. Plans for the entertainment hub include the concert hall, a food court and factory tours, plus the reborn Talent Skatepark, which opened earlier this year. Burton and its supporters say the campus will be a "cultural touchstone" that fits in well with the South End arts scene.
"We just think it's going to be amazing," Justin Worthley, Burton's senior vice president of global human resources, told Seven Days last month. "This is something that will be on the short list for people to do in Burlington."
Neighbors in Queen City Park and on Burlington streets near the Burton complex have been a tougher sell. They worry that Higher Ground, which hosts loud concerts in a variety of music genres at its current South Burlington location in a commercial area of Williston Road, will attract raucous young people to their peaceful community. Burton says the studies it commissioned show the project won't be a nuisance and the company's detailed plans for handling postconcert crowds will ensure an orderly exit. They've met with the opponents a handful of times to create goodwill. "We want to make sure we do this responsibly," Worthley said.
But project opponents aren't feeling the love. For more than an hour at last week's Development Review Board meeting in Burlington, they argued that Burton's studies are flawed. They urged the board to consider a scaled-down venue, saying what's good for business isn't always good for neighbors.
"I get that Burlington needs to be a really vibrant, exciting place and we need to grow and thrive," project opponent Laurie Smith said, "but there are appropriate ways to do it."
Before last summer, music venues weren't allowed to operate where Higher Ground is now proposed. City zoning confined performing arts venues in the South End to Pine Street and capped them at 5,000 square feet. In June of 2019, however, the Burlington City Council voted to allow venues of up to 15,000 square feet in the entire Enterprise Light-Manufacturing district, an area primarily west of Pine from Kilburn Street to Queen City Park Road, the site of Burton's headquarters.
The day after the vote, South Burlington City Council vice chair Meaghan Emery wrote a letter scolding Burlington councilors for not considering nearby residents. She sent them a petition signed by 75 people who opposed the change; they would later form the Citizens for Responsible Zoning. Today, the group's 100 members, split nearly equally between Burlington and South Burlington residents, have raised thousands of dollars to fight the project.
The group has already delayed Burton's plans. Last November, Burlington issued the company a permit for stormwater and parking improvements, which Burton said were unrelated to the hub proposal. The neighbors appealed, unsuccessfully, to Burlington's Development Review Board, then took the matter to the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court. The case is still pending.
Worthley and Higher Ground co-owners Alan Newman and Alex Crothers began meeting with neighbors to work out their disagreements, even hiring a professional mediator and continuing over Zoom when the pandemic hit. The opponents proposed cutting the venue's maximum capacity to 750 people — less than Higher Ground's current 1,050 on Williston Road — and closing the venue at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.
"At first it felt like a negotiation," said Sharon O'Neill of Burlington, one of the neighbors closest to the project. "But then it did start to feel like there was a lot of 'no' coming from their direction."
Burton submitted a formal application to the city in May before any agreement could be reached. The plans dedicate nearly 11,600 square feet to the Higher Ground music space, plus a sizable outdoor patio. The food court — which would feature local favorites Mad Taco and Misery Loves Co. — will be considered in a separate application.
The venue could draw as many as 500 cars for a sold-out show, assuming people carpool, but there are only two ways to drive there: from the north, along Home Avenue, or from the south crossing a one-lane bridge on Queen City Park Road.
Neighbors say neither road is equipped to handle that volume of traffic. And unless the Champlain Parkway is built, congestion at the Home Avenue-Pine Street intersection will get worse, according to Burton's own traffic study. Designed to connect Interstate 189 to downtown Burlington, the parkway has been held up by legal appeals for decades, though the city hopes to start construction next spring.
Neighbors near the one-lane bridge predict problems, too. Queen City Park resident Richard White said queuing cars could block the entrance to the neighborhood. A retired physician, White worries that postconcert traffic could hamper emergency services. "We feel like we're gonna be choked," he said.
Worthley, however, said most concertgoers would arrive after peak commuter hours. He said Burton will monitor traffic after the first 10 shows to determine whether a flagger could help keep cars moving. He doesn't expect there will be a problem, because there won't be many sold-out shows.
Ben Traverse, who lives at the corner of Pine and Home, told the Development Review Board last week that Burton's "wait and see" approach doesn't cut it. He generally supports Burton's plans and is not part of the citizen group, but he doubts that traffic will be as manageable as Worthley predicts. He urged Burton to address the issue before the project is built, not afterward.
"It would not be acceptable ... for there to not be a solution for this intersection," he said.
Other neighbors say Burton's plans wouldn't do enough to curb noise. Burton's study shows that concert noise would be loudest at O'Neill's home on Arthur Court, a cul-de-sac in the venue's backyard. Noise could reach 42 decibels during concerts and 44 decibels after, the study says, but would be consistent with the area's existing nighttime noise levels.
The venue would use drywall and insulation to deaden the sound and would have a "no-tailgating" policy to prevent people from congregating after shows. City planners have suggested that the review board issue a permit with the condition that Burton monitor noise during and after three sold-out events. If levels are higher than predicted, the company would have to order additional sound suppression.
The neighbors say sounds from the concerts would violate Burlington's own noise ordinance, which prohibits "plainly audible" music between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. A report by the opponents' expert, Les Blomberg, concludes that Burton failed to account for louder vehicles or inebriated patrons leaving the venue "in any credible way."
"At the end of a concert, when more than a thousand people who have been drinking and have suffered a temporary threshold shift in their hearing ability leave, they will not file out like monks following evening prayers," Blomberg wrote in his report.
Emery, the South Burlington city councilor, expects that residents will also feel the bass from loud concerts — as she does, living five blocks from Higher Ground's present-day location. The venue is currently closed due to the pandemic, but Emery said neighbors have made noise complaints over the years. South Burlington councilors have raised concerns over noise and safety with Burton representatives in several meetings in the last few weeks. They suggested Burton hire a sound engineer if neighbors complain about low-frequency noise and enlist off-duty police officers to direct traffic. Burton refused, Emery said.
"Having no statutory protections in place whatsoever — I find that to be very unfair," she said, noting that her constituents already deal with noise from the Burlington-owned airport. "When we have no control over it, it's a very hard pill to swallow."
Worthley, along with Higher Ground's Newman and Crothers, declined a follow-up interview with Seven Days until after the Development Review Board's August 18 meeting, when the project will be discussed again. It's unclear when the board will vote.
Meantime, more than three dozen people have written letters urging the review board to approve the project. About half of them are Burton employees or people connected to Newman, who helped found several prominent Vermont businesses, including Magic Hat Brewing, Seventh Generation and Gardener's Supply. None disclosed their professional affiliations in the correspondence.
Brett Smith is one of those supporters. He worked for Fuse, a marketing outfit that partnered with Burton in the past, and also lives on nearby Austin Drive. Smith — no relation to project opponent Laurie Smith — isn't concerned about noise but recognizes that it's natural for homeowners to worry. He compared the Burton conundrum to the debate when Burlington wanted to develop a skate park on the waterfront, an effort he supported. The park is beloved today, but neighbors opposed it before it was built.
Newman was among those opponents. A resident of Lakeview Terrace, which overlooks the waterfront, Newman and nearly 40 other neighbors appealed a skate park permit in 2011 over concerns that traffic and noise would keep them up at night.
"We need to be able to live in our homes, sleep peacefully and have rights as citizens of Burlington," they wrote in a letter to city planners. "While we are totally in favor of good mixed use zoning ... we also need to have our homes and neighborhood considered and respected."
The group lost the appeal. Newman told Seven Days he doesn't remember the case because he was then living in Los Angeles much of the time. "I suspect I signed to go along with my neighbors," he said.
But Laurie Smith, the project opponent, can't ignore the irony.
"Why are we NIMBY and what you did wasn't?" he posited, referring to the term for people who tell developers, "Not in my backyard."
"He didn't succeed," he continued, "so maybe he thinks we won't."