Higher Ground is one step closer to a new Burlington space.
South Burlington residents from the Queen City Park neighborhood are planning their next move after the Burlington Development Review Board approved a conditional use application Sept. 1, allowing the venue’s move to a warehouse on the Burton Snowboard’s campus on Queen City Park Road.
The board’s approval has 19 conditions, including ordering venue doors to stay closed during events, a ban on tailgating before and after events and traffic control measures near the venue.
Burton will also have to perform noise and traffic studies within the first six months of Higher Ground’s opening.
The project is part of Burton’s larger “community hub” concept, seeking to create a gathering and entertainment space with food vendors, factory tours, a performing arts venue and more.
The public has 30 days from the board’s vote to appeal the decision to Vermont Environmental Court.
Laurie Smith, who lives in Queen City Park and is a member of Citizens for Responsible Zoning — a group that has challenged the project on the basis of safety and noise concerns — said it was likely that neighbors will appeal the approval.
Citizens for Responsible Zoning members have attended Development Review Board and City Council meetings in both Burlington and South Burlington to challenge the project and have had meetings with Burton to voice worries.
Smith said he does not feel Burton has acted on neighbors’ concerns.
For example, he was disappointed that the development review board did not acknowledge a letter from the city of South Burlington’s lawyer laying out the city’s concerns, and felt the board did not pay attention to pedestrian safety or “noise information” provided by the Citizens for Responsible Zoning group.
“We fully expected that the DRB would approve the project. Not because it’s approvable, but because of the political pressure behind it and the development drive around this project,” Smith said.
The Citizens for Responsible Zoning group was set to meet on Saturday, Sept. 12, to discuss its next step.
Lynn Vera is not a member of the formal opposition group but lives in the neighborhood. She has attended Burlington and South Burlington city council meetings with discussions about the Burton proposal, and some Burlington Development Review Board meetings.
“My fear is that my next step is disgust and apathy because I have dedicated countless hours in emails, in person meetings, phone calls and testimony,” Vera said. “I think the decision was made by Burlington before any public comment was even considered. I believe it was totally economics and quality of life isn’t a factor.”
Vera said she will personally be impacted by noise and light as concert goers head to the venue. She worries about a possible negative impact on Red Rocks Park, a nearby natural area, if concert goers wander over after concerts.
“It’s much harder to undo than it is to slow down and thoughtfully plan,” she said of the Development Review Board’s approval.
After talking with a Burton rep, she was disappointed, because she felt he was disingenuous.
“That’s a part of all of this for me, when I say the risk is apathy,” Vera said. “To have people who are willing to put in time and thought to then be absolutely dismissed. Perhaps, that’s the point, that we’ve become a culture where the biggest voice or the deepest pockets gets the attention. That will get us in trouble because that kills our democracy.”
Even without COVID-19, there’s a long road before bands can take the stage at a new Higher Ground venue.
The project needs Act 250 permit approval and other building permits before the move can take place, according to Justin Worthley, Burton’s senior vice president of human resources.
The permitting process is long, costly and time consuming, said Alex Crothers, co-owner of Higher Ground.
What has taken the venue two-and-a-half years in Vermont could be done more expeditiously elsewhere, like in Portland, Maine, he said. He’s happy to have gained this approval.
As for a possible appeal, Crothers said Burton and Higher Ground’s goal is to continue to work with neighbors. He hopes the conditions set by the development review board will help relieve concerns.
But, one neighborhood request — closing the concert venue at 10 p.m. — is not viable for business, he said.
Worthley said an appeal would be disappointing. The development review board process has been extensive, he added.
“I suppose not everybody’s going to agree with us, but we can’t build this project in a way that’s going to create an adverse impact on the neighborhood,” Worthley said. That is because of the conditions around traffic and noise and the evaluation that will occur six months after opening, he added.
“Most of the conditions we had already built into our planning. There’s a few things that were added by the DRB and we’re fine with all of those,” Worthley said. “We’re just really excited to move forward now.”
During past meetings with neighbors, Burton and Higher Ground have offered to bring in a neutral third-party facilitator to help with discussions. Neighbors opted out of that, according to Crothers.
“We’re still more than happy to sit down on the table, and probably the most productive thing we can do is bring in a neutral third-party facilitator,” he said.