Vermont native needs zoning change to keep growing business on Williston Road
BY JASON STARR
New England Chimney Supply owner Pierre Simard figured his acquisition last year of two parcels next to the company’s Williston Road headquarters would clear the way for a much-needed expansion and give the company space to grow in Williston.
The company, which builds steel chimney liners and venting systems, has seen steady sales and employee growth since its founding in 2010. It built its current 45,000-square-foot facility in 2016, but already needs more space.
“We thought it would take us for 10- 12 years, but we ended up outgrowing it in about five,” Simard said.
Unbeknownst to him, a portion of the property he purchased (with two investors under the name WSW Investments) to expand the company is zoned only for residential use. Taken together, the parcels encompass 4 acres that straddle three different zoning districts near the intersection of Williston Road and Commerce Street. They are bordered by residential neighborhoods on South Brownell Road and Kirby Lane.
Simard acknowledges a lack of “due diligence” in acquiring residential property for the expansion of a commercial enterprise, but he holds out hope that, through a rarely used provision in the Town of Williston’s zoning regulations, the parcels can be combined and rezoned for industrial use.
The planned expansion would create an additional 30,000 square feet of manufacturing space, expand parking and create about 20 new jobs, Simard said. The company currently employs about 90 people and is hiring for multiple positions. Its products are distributed to contractors for chimney installations throughout the Northeast.
Simard credits the company’s culture and values for the success that has led to the need to expand: Pride in the company and products, honesty and integrity, commitment and hard work, self improvement, growth mindset and excellence in service. Sales have quadrupled in the past five years, he said.
“It’s not that our industry is growing, because it’s not,” he said, “but we do things in a way that people want to do business with us.”
The Williston Planning Commission has agreed that the expansion could benefit the town and is entertaining the possibility of changing the zoning. It has formed an advisory committee to consider the proposal. The committee includes seven residential neighbors, representatives from the Vermont Agency of Transportation and Green Mountain Transit, and members of the town’s planning commission, development review board and historical and architectural advisory committee.
The advisory committee is planning a site visit to NECS next week, Simard said. If the committee endorses the expansion, it would forward the proposal to the full planning commission, which would then vote whether to send it to the selectboard for final approval. The company would still need Development Review Board approval for the expansion.
Some homeowners in the area have spoken out against the expansion, expecting an increase in smell and noise from the facility.
“The zoning changes will certainly lower the value of our home and cause a significant environmental impact on our neighborhood,” Kirby Lane residents Jeff and Heather Soren wrote in a letter to town planners.
An anonymous survey of neighbors by the town’s planning staff produced both opponent and proponent comments, including: “These are good people that provide many jobs and bring more people into town for their daily commute. They shop, buy food, gas and support local businesses. There should be no reason not to allow them to expand. This is a highly trafficked area. The impact would be minimal. It would also look better than it does now.”
Meghan Cope was in the minority on the planning commission in opposing the proposal.
“The substantial objections from several abutting landowners suggest that there is already some level of animus and dissatisfaction, which would only worsen with the proposed expansion,” she wrote to town staff in an April letter.
Simard said the feedback has already led to changes in the plan, including an improved sound barrier and conducting a new sound study.
“We’re listening,” he said. “It’s never going to be a perfect, harmonious relationship — although that is our goal — but we will listen to our neighbors’ concerns and try to address them.
“This whole area is becoming commercial,” he added. “Williston road is one of the busiest roads in the state. The residences are becoming little islands amongst a bunch of commercial development that’s going on.”
NECS has an office in Virginia that it opened after acquiring a chimney supply company in the Mid-Atlantic. Simard marvels at the large labor pool — 1.3 million people in the county (Fairfax, Virginia) where it is located. If expansion plans in Williston fall through, consolidating operations in Virginia is a possibility for the company.
“I grew up here in Vermont and my family is here so I don’t want to move the facility,” said Simard. “If we can’t expand (in Williston), we are going to have to figure something out.”
Other options include moving to another Chittenden County building, or opening a second facility in the county. Neither are ideal.
“Our first and foremost option is to expand here,” Simard said. “If we can’t, we’ll have to make a decision that’s right for the company.”