By Luke Baynes
It has been seven months since Maple Leaf Farm submitted a specific plan application to the Williston Planning and Zoning Department to establish an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center on the former Pine Ridge School property on Williston Road.
During that time, the Williston Planning Commission held two warned community meetings, both of which were contentious and highly divisive. Some Willistonians opposed the plan, citing the location’s proximity to residential neighborhoods and schools. Others argued that the facility would allow Williston residents suffering from alcohol and drug addiction to receive local treatment.
Planning Commission members were primarily observers during those meetings, taking feedback and letting the public engage with Maple Leaf Farm officials.
On Tuesday, the commission rolled up its sleeves and dug into the details of Maple Leaf Farm’s specific plan request to change the zoning of a property currently zoned for agricultural and rural residential uses.
Specifically, the commission addressed Maple Leaf Farm’s assertion that a zoning change of the Pine Ridge property is justified because it meets substantial public benefit criteria under the town’s bylaws through the preservation of open space—a viewpoint at odds with a group of nearby residents, who have argued that the land is already preserved by its rugged and undevelopable nature.
Williston Director of Planning and Zoning Ken Belliveau suggested that the commission consider requiring the applicant to grant a third-party conservation easement on the property, which would prevent development in perpetuity, regardless of future owners.
“I think that the commission would probably want to consider whether or not we would want to require that it be placed under a conservation easement, as opposed to just being designated (as open space),” Belliveau said.
Senior Planner Matt Boulanger proffered that the commission might want to think about the conservation easement question in terms of other perpetually beneficial assets that could be gained through the specific plan, such as primitive hiking trails.
“The thought exercise of what could happen there if we didn’t have permanent protection is a good one, because you need to line it up against are we getting something that we wouldn’t get otherwise,” Boulanger said. “The only way the town, through its regulatory process, gets a trail is if someone offers one as part of a subdivision review, where they get points in growth management for it and then they have to build it.”
Planning Commission member Kevin Batson had mixed sentiments.
“I have two conflicting opinions on that,” Batson said. “One is I don’t necessarily want to limit their ability to use it for passive recreation for people. But on the other hand, I think there is a need for us to sell it to the town. If they’re just going to leave it as open space, I don’t know if that’s enough public good.”
Commission member Meghan Cope suggested that aside from the preservation of open space question, Maple Leaf Farm should be required to set limits on its maximum number of both inpatients and outpatients.
“I’m not saying what the limit should be, but I’m just saying there should be a limit,” Cope said.
No formal decisions were made by the Planning Commission on Tuesday, although a consensus was reached to have Planning and Zoning Department staff draft definitions of suggested open space parameters and inpatient/outpatient limits.
Belliveau agreed to that course of action and added that he and Boulanger will discuss the conservation easement concept with Maple Leaf Farm officials in the coming weeks.