MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously backed spending $150,000 from the town’s Land Conservation Trust Fund to buy 38.3 acres on Chipman Hill’s southeastern flank.
That approval caps talks between the town and the seller, Co-Operative Insurance Companies, that had progressed in recent months.
Co-Op Insurance had previously tried to sell the land for higher sums to be developed for housing. Selectboard members praised the firm for instead striking a deal that will preserve the parcel for what a town document described as “deed restricted for use for conservation, public park and recreation use only.”
“I think this is a really splendid arrangement,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo. “I think they (Co-Op) are showing great public spirit.”
Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said the town’s conservation trust fund now contains $458,000, and after this purchase and another $70,000 dedicated to a riverfront project the fund would still have a balance of $238,000.
The parcel adds to land already conserved on Chipman Hill and the nearby Battell Woods, both of which are managed by the Battell Trust. The agreement also calls for the Battell Trust to assume management of this parcel.
Also included in the purchase price is an easement on Co-Op property next to the 38.3-acre parcel for parking for residents who want to use the new town land.
According to the town document, Battell Trustees have committed $50,000 from their trust fund to build a small parking lot and an information kiosk on that easement area, which will “improve public access to Chipman Hill and the conserved park area to be purchased from Co-Op Insurance.”
One resident at the meeting said it was a terrific deal for the town and its residents.
“It’s a huge investment for our community,” said Amy Sheldon. “It’s going to make a huge difference. Chipman Hill is so important.”
EAST MIDDLEBURY ISSUE
The selectboard also heard from two East Middlebury couples, Sheldon and Ashar Nelson and Raymond and Connie Grant, that they were now being unfairly taxed by that community’s fire district after years of not being served by it.
The fire district no longer provides fire service, but manages the East Middlebury municipal water system and also contributes to community services, including the East Middlebury library.
Fire district officials Mike Newton and Jason Larocque said the district in the past couple years updated its billing by checking into Middlebury tax maps, and in that process learned the two couples’ homes were in the district. At that point, the district started sending tax bills, which are in addition to regular Middlebury taxes.
Those bills translate to $70 for each $100,000 of assessed value, or $175 for a $250,000 home.
Larocque said modern mapping uncovered homes inside the district boundaries that had not been billed, and that bills were now being sent.
“Essentially this was a housekeeping thing,” Larocque told the board. “We found a half-dozen properties that weren’t receiving tax bills.”
He also noted that there were about a dozen-and-a-half homes, like those owned by the Grants and by Sheldon and Nelson, that were not served by community water.
But Sheldon said when she and Nelson bought their home earlier in the past decade and inquired about service, “We were told we were not in the fire district.”
She argued that although the fire district does contribute to other entities, “You have to look at this service today and say this is a water service,” and added there are many homeowners in Middlebury with wells who pay full taxes and are not asked to pay extra.
Nelson said his research showed many “arbitrary changes” to the district boundaries since it was founded in 1934, and he suggested the district “most accurately represents the water system right now.”
Raymond Grant said he and his wife had lived there longer and had several times requested service and been informed they were not in the district.
“We’ve always been told when we wanted something we’re not in the fire district, and now all of a sudden we’re in it,” Grant said.
Town Planner Fred Dunnington said the maps were accurate, and that all the current uses of the fire district were legal under state law.
Board chairman Dean George said the homeowners’ only recourse was to petition to have the boundaries redrawn, something that would require a petition signed by either 20 district members, or 5 percent of the district members. That would then trigger a public hearing and then possibly a vote, and a result that would also require district and selectboard approval.
In other business, the board:
• Was reminded by Ramsay that the first public hearing on the proposed new town plan was set for Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. in the Ilsley Library. The 2012 draft town plan can be viewed online at www.middlebury.govoffice.com.
• Heard pleas from South Street residents that traffic-calming measures should not have to wait until the delayed paving project is finished to be implemented.
• Heard from Ramsay that progress on the fire station projects is good. The new East Middlebury station is nearing completion, she said, while the Seymour Street station is under budget and on track to be finished in January or February.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.