Bentons, Vergennes reach verbal deal for creek-side lot

VERGENNES — Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton last week confirmed that he and his sister have a verbal agreement to sell to Vergennes some riverfront land they own next to the city docks.
The price that Benton said he and City Manager Mel Hawley agreed upon remains undisclosed, but Benton said the figure is less than that pegged in an appraisal arranged by the Vergennes City Council.
“Mel and I came to an agreement verbally on price. The appraisal the city had done, which I was given a copy of, is higher than our price. And that’s fine with me. We had already agreed,” Benton said.
Benton said he and his sister have no intention of walking away from the deal. 
“I wouldn’t unless this fell apart. It’s still all in good faith,” he said.
According to city records, the parcel is 0.4 of an acre with about 200 feet of frontage both on Otter Creek and Macdonough Drive. It lies south of the docks, between the docks and the nearby intersection of Macdonough Drive and Comfort Hill.
Aldermen have met behind closed doors several times in recent months to discuss the deal, although last week they finally talked about the land in an open session.
Hawley said the probable source of payment for the land is the city’s Water Tower Fund. Aldermen use that fund, which is fed by cellphone companies that pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower, at their discretion to make improvements to Vergennes.
Although the Vergennes city charter requires that residents must approve all real estate sales, the council may acquire real estate without voter approval.
Vergennes already leases the land from the Bentons for $1 a year, and floating city docks stretch along its waterfront during warm-weather months. Hawley said there are also a handful of parking spots on the parcel.
But making further improvements to the land is a problem if the city does not own the parcel, Hawley said: Foundations or state agencies that award grants will not do so for projects on leased land.
Thus buying the land could have a financial benefit, he said.
“Let’s say we wanted to construct a walking path or add lighting,” Hawley said. “If we were to apply for a grant to improve a walking trail or install any sort of structure, we need to own it.”
The sale has not closed yet because aldermen are waiting for a survey to be completed. Vergennes surveyor Tim Cowan is handling that task on a volunteer basis, and understandably, Benton said, it is taking time.
“The city council wants to see a survey. Tim Cowan is doing it pro bono. But because of that he does it when he can,” Benton said. “Once that’s done and they know exactly what it’s going to be, then we probably will enter into some sort of formal agreement.”
Another reason the job is not done is its complexity, Hawley said. Cowan, who is also working on a larger survey of the entire basin for the city’s Otter Creek task force, has to deal with land records that date back more than 200 years, and also a question of whether there is an extra sliver of land between the Benton’s parcel and more city-owned land to the south.
“These are old, old deeds,” Hawley said. “There is some uncertainty of ownership in there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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