City may buy waterfront land for park, trail

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Jan. 27 met for the second time in two weeks behind closed doors to discuss a land deal with Mayor Bill Benton and his sister Betsey Benton.
Ownership of that land, along Otter Creek, could help the city create a park on the river’s east side while connecting the city’s MacDonough Drive docks with Main Street. The city has, since 2010, leased the parcel from the Bentons for a nominal annual fee. The land is in the flood plain, limiting its value.
Before meeting in the Jan. 27 executive session without Mayor Benton, aldermen said they were now considering rolling the purchase price for a parcel with 600 feet of waterfront into a grant application.
City Manager Mel Hawley said on Thursday the city plans to apply for an $80,000 grant to the Vermont Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is administered by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
The city’s Otter Creek Basin Task Force, created after this past spring’s Vermont Council on Rural Development visioning process, had already recommended the city seek a grant from that source. But state officials told the city the program does not award grants for improvements on property that is not municipally owned.
That news triggered the talk of the land deal. Benton told the Independent he and his sister were happy to sell the parcel to Vergennes for “a fair number.” That amount and the exact state of talks between the parties remain undisclosed.
The city is facing a time crunch in making a deal, at least if aldermen want to apply for the current round of available grants — Hawley said the deadline is noon on Feb. 16 for a completed application to the Vermont Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is on Feb. 10.
Hawley said there are still moving parts: As well as pinning down a purchase price, aldermen and members of the task force must also decide what elements to leave in the grant proposal once part of the $80,000 is set aside to buy the land.
Hawley said the goals of the project include establishing and marking a clear trail from the docks to the stairs that lead from Main Street down to the basin, and adding park amenities such as picnic tables, barbecue pits and lighting.
Aldermen must also confirm the source of the city’s matching 50 percent of the grant. Hawley said city officials plan on using the roughly $39,000 left in a joint account held by Vergennes and Green Mountain Power. That money is the remainder of funding that GMP had to dedicate to improvements in the Otter Creek falls and basin area as a condition of obtaining a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit to continue generating power at the falls.
In an Oct. 24 email, GMP official Jason Lisai said the park and trail proposal, “Sounds like a great project and appropriate use of funds,” and that GMP would almost certainly agree to use of the joint funds for that purpose, “Pending more formal paperwork required.”
In other business on Jan. 27, aldermen:
•  Discussed with leaders of the Vergennes Champs summer swim team the issue of setting rates for use of the city’s swimming pool. Both the Champs and the city have to set rates this spring, and members of the team must pay both. Swim team officials are concerned about dropping participation and told aldermen that setting rates too high, especially for out-of-town swimmers, could hurt revenue by discouraging sign-ups. The discussion will continue at their next meeting, aldermen said.
•  Agreed to create a small committee to evaluate the city’s recreation program, a goal Benton outlined at their Jan. 13 meeting. Aldermen hope to have in hand within three months preliminary recommendations on whether there should be new programs and/or hired staff, an inventory of recreation assets, and a maintenance plan. They also discussed the possibility of a recreation survey to be made available to residents on Town Meeting Day, part of their long-range plan to seek public input.
•  Heard from Hawley that the 150-kilowatt solar array installed a year ago did not quite reach its projected power output, mostly because it was “a pretty gloomy year.” He told aldermen that the array produced power at a rate about 88 percent of its expected output, and for that reason the city received about $3,600 of credit on its annual sewer treatment plant power bill, not the projected $4,120.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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