ST. ALBANS — The federal General Services Agency (GSA) is meeting opposition as it intends to relocate the USDA Service Center for Franklin and Grand Isle counties from Fisher Pond Road to downtown St. Albans City.
The USDA and Vermont’s Congressional delegation already have raised criticism of the plan.
The new location is not compatible with the mission of the center and the two agencies working out of it – the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – according to Bob Paquin, state director for FSA.
“It’s a storefront, walk-in operation,” said Paquin of the services that today are offered at the Valley Crossroads plaza near the base of St. Albans Hill at the intersection of Fisher Pond Road (Vermont 104) and Upper Fairfield Street (Route 36). USDA regulations require the county service centers to have ease of parking and to accommodate large farm vehicles, which is the case at the present location.
Of greater concern is the level of security at the downtown building.
The USDA offices would be located at the rear of the building which formerly housed the U.S. Post Office and is the current home of the U.S. Passport Agency. Space recently opened up in the building and government regulations require that USDA consider relocating its offices when space is available in a federally owned building, explained Paquin.
USDA requested a waiver, arguing the location was incompatible with its mission, but the waiver was denied. The agency has appealed that decision with support from Vermont’s U.S. senators and Rep. Peter Welch, as well as state Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, said Paquin.
The entrance farmers and other visitors to USDA offices would have to use is guarded and those entering must pass through a metal detector. When a member of the USDA county committee went on a visit to examine at the space, her purse was searched, according to Paquin.
“I can’t fathom how that would be construed as efficient and convenient,” said Paquin, who is concerned the level of security will discourage farmers from coming to the service center.
Farmers could choose to go to offices in Newport, Morrisville and Williston if the local office is perceived as too difficult to access, he said.
In addition, FSA and NRCS sometimes have meetings at their offices after hours, which would require additional hours for the guards who work at the downtown office building. NRCS works with multiple state agencies and non-profit organizations as part of its water quality programs and those partners are often in the office after regular business hours, said Paquin.
There are about 4,000 visits to the agency office in St. Albans each year, according to a letter from the Congressional delegation to GSA.
In December, 120 producers visited the office in a three-week period after weather damaged maple sugar bushes around the area, according Brenda Ladue the FSA county executive director.
Only three USDA county service centers in the country are located in buildings with comparable levels of security, said Paquin.
The other concern is parking. The proposed location is near Bellows Free Academy, in an area often congested with high school students’ vehicles.
“Unpredictable on-street parking for constituents in a busy downtown corridor will be a barrier to farmers with larger vehicles and little time to search for a parking space,” the delegation wrote in a letter to GSA opposing the move.
Large farm vehicles, including those with trailers can park in the current location, a strip mall with off-street parking.
Parking is a secondary concern, however. “The real question is access and compatibility with USDA’s mission,” said Paquin.
The move, if it takes place, would happen in 2016 when the lease for the current location expires. In the meantime, GSA would renovate former Dept. of Homeland Security offices, which have become available in the federal building for USDA.
Renovations to USDA’s current space are almost fully paid for, said Paquin, adding that rent for the space will decline as a result.