Land lease gives access to waterfront area of city

VERGENNES — The city of Vergennes will sign a lease this week with landowners Bill and Kristin Benton for a 2-acre parcel that has 433 feet of frontage along the Otter Creek basin’s east bank.
Aldermen — with Benton, a city council member, not participating — unanimously backed the agreement at their April 24 meeting.
The land will link the recently completed stairway down from Main Street to the river with the city’s MacDonough Drive docks.
City officials said they planned to clear dead trees and brush from the parcel and add picnic tables and trash cans to expand recreational opportunities in the river basin.
“It helps attract (visitors) to that basin area even more,” said City Manager Mel Hawley.
On Thursday, Bill Benton said the $425,000 grant-funded stairway — it is the so-called Riverwalk project, finally complete after a decade of fits and starts — has already drawn visitors and fishermen down to Otter Creek.
“It’s amazing the amount of traffic,” said Benton, whose appraisal office and home are both next to the new concrete stairway, which has viewing platforms and wrought-iron railings.
Benton said the lease will be on a year-to-year basis, but because the agreement will renew automatically it will run for the foreseeable future. 
“Effectively it’s in perpetuity unless one of us terminates,” he said.
The Bentons will have their tax bill on the land waived as compensation for signing the deal. Hawley told aldermen last week that “not a lot” of money was involved in the tax abatement for the property, which Benton described as 90 percent wetlands.
Now that the city has an official interest in the land, officials will also be able to save money by contracting with the Northlands Job Corps Urban Forestry Program to do the needed tree and brush work. Hawley told aldermen that Northlands cannot operate on privately owned land, but may do so on publicly owned or leased land.
Benton said Northlands students have in the past worked on city-leased land on the other side of Potash Brook on the north end of his property.
“They’ve already done clearing north of Potash Brook,” he said. “Now we can do it south of Potash Brook.”
Another grant about a decade ago funded a small metal bridge over that brook, meaning anyone can now walk easily to Main Street from the docks. That connection should be an extra attraction to summer boat visitors and other tourists as well as residents, Hawley said.
There are also existing walking paths on the east bank, plus an access road to the area off MacDonough Drive that was built by Green Mountain Power. Benton said it would be up to the council and the city’s recreation committee to decide how much to improve the paths and the road.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].                                                                                    

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