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MALT seeks to protect Chipman Hill land

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) wants to conserve 40 acres of forested land on the eastern slope of Chipman Hill, property that was once slated for a housing development.
The property is owned by the Co-operative Insurance Company and forms — along with Chipman Hill — what MALT Executive Director Josh Phillips called “the largest contiguous forest habitat in the vicinity of Middlebury village.”
“It is an interesting spot,” said Phillips, who recently met with selectmen to get support for the conservation deal.
It is a spot that that Co-op Insurance a few years ago considered selling to a developer with plans for a mixed-use housing development. Recent changes in the housing market have apparently prompted the landowner to rethink plans for property, Phillips noted.
“It seems as though it is not developable in the manner they envisioned,” he said.
One of the property’s environmental attributes, according to Phillips, is the presence of a mix of northern hardwood trees and pockets of shrub that make the spot prime habitat for a variety of mammals and birds, such as the eastern wood-pewee, chestnut-sided warbler and white-throated sparrow.
“It connects Chipman Hill with the Battell Woods and Means Woods,” Phillips said. “It enables wildlife to move through with only having to cross a stream and meadow.”
It is also a popular recreation spot, as it is crossed by the Trail Around Middlebury, connecting Washington Street with Chipman Hill. It also features several other hiking and biking trails, as well as a 5-acre gravel pit that is popular among mountain bikers.
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) and the Battell Trust have expressed an interest in helping MALT conserve the parcel, according to Phillips.
“The VHCB has encouraged us to apply for funding,” Phillips said.
The land was most recently appraised (in 2003) at $378,000, according to Phillips, who last week asked for $2,800 in conservation-related town funds for a new appraisal of the property.
“The first step is obviously a reappraisal, because the last one is seven years old, and the market has gone up substantially since then and then come back down to earth again, so we don’t know what the ultimate price here is going to be,” Phillips said.
Meanwhile, Middlebury selectmen said they want to get a first-hand look at the property and get some additional information before deciding whether to endorse the proposed conservation deal.
Selectboard Chairman John Tenny noted conservation of the same piece of land was pitched to the board several years ago.
“At that time, this board rejected this direction,” Tenny said.
He explained the board, at the time, saw the land in question as a logical area for residential development. That’s because the property is close to the village with easy connection to existing water, sewer and road services, according to Tenny, who asked Phillips what circumstances might have changed to make conservation more a propos at this time.
Phillips reiterated the environmental/recreational significance of the land and asserted it would probably be quite costly to develop the property for housing because of its steep topography.
“I think for me, the environmental sensitivity of this parcel outweighs its usefulness as a place for housing,” Phillips replied. “There are other places adjacent … that may be in the future developed for housing.”
Selectmen said they will do some more research on what led the previous board to balk at conservation of the land, before deciding whether to give their consent this time around.
“I still find myself torn somewhat here,” Tenny said. “Since the time when we were rather strongly in favor of maintaining this as a housing potential, we have seen other housing developments come forward… so there are a lot more housing opportunities in the community than there were. Nonetheless, this would be the closest to the downtown area, so for me has a good deal of appeal.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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