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Early roots for Neshobe Farm Project

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June 14, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

BRANDON — The fields at the Steinberg Farm in Brandon have been mostly fallow for 25 years. But Chuck Johnson and his California-based development firm, Elemental Development, which bought the 103 acres a few years ago, want to see those fields in bloom again.

This Friday at the Ball and Chain Café at 7 p.m., Johnson will present to the public the most current plans for that land just north of the Brandon Medical Center. He’s calling it the Neshobe Farm Project, a holistic community complete with varied housing, organic farming, open space, recreational trails and a community center.

“I went from calling it a sustainable community to a holistic community because what I’ve heard from Brandon is that they need economic development as much as housing, so we’re trying to create cottage industry, not leave anything out,” Johnson said.

The community as Johnson envisions it will boast 140 units of green housing — mostly passive solar — including single-family homes, duplexes, rentals and senior housing, starting in the $150,000-$200,000 range. It will also include a daycare center, a commercial kitchen and restaurant, retail spaces, an outdoor pool, dance and yoga studios, a fitness center and spa, a café and 20 guest rooms.

“All these amenities have jobs attached,” Johnson said.

Also in the plans is the creation of a nonprofit organization, the Neshobe Center for Sustainable Living Arts, based in a renovated barn at the center of the farm. The center would offer workshops in sustainability and promote environmental awareness.

“I hope to engage regional educational institutions as well — really use the project as a planetary model,” Johnson said.

Developers all over the country have been creating intentional communities similar to Neshobe Farm, but Johnson said his project is unique for two reasons: its economic development components and its integration with the surrounding town. 

Neshobe Farm will include bike- and footpaths connecting to downtown Brandon. And Brandon residents will be encouraged to visit the farm for workshops, fresh produce and festivities.

Working with Johnson on this project are Artisan Builders, Johnson’s sustainable architectural firm, Burlington-based landscape architectural firm TJ Boyle and Associates and Allen Matthews, program director for the University of Vermont’s Center of Sustainable Agriculture.

Johnson is preparing to present the project, which he estimates will cost about $20 million, to the Brandon Development Review Board (DRB). He presented it once before last August, but decided he wanted more feedback from the community before going ahead with any plans.

A California native, Johnson has done most of his business in Vermont since “falling in love” with the state a few years ago.

“I’ve been totally enchanted with Vermont. I would live here, but I’ve got kids in high school in California,” he said.

Brandon Administrative Officer Buzz Racine, who works in the town’s economic development office, noted that once Johnson gets the OK from the town’s DRB, he’ll still need a go-ahead from the state, including an Act 250 permit.

“But if all went really well, there’s a possibility he could break ground next summer,” Racine said.

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