City OKs land deal with mayor

VERGENNES — With a final wrinkle officially ironed out, the Vergennes City Council on Tuesday approved spending $20,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund to buy a 0.4-acre waterfront parcel from Mayor Bill Benton and his sister, Betsey Benton.
The long-awaited deal for a parcel next to the city docks — valued at $30,000 by Ferrisburgh appraiser Charlene Stavenow — had been held up until the title to an adjacent sliver of land could be cleared up.
At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Mel Hawley announced that apparent obstacle had been removed: City business owner Thomas Jackman had signed a quitclaim deed confirming that Vergennes owned that adjacent parcel, which Hawley estimated had 36 feet of frontage on Otter Creek and 100 feet of frontage on Macdonough Drive.
Hawley said research showed the parcel was accidentally not conveyed to the Jackman family in the 1940s along with a second parcel. The Jackman family had since sold both to Vergennes, and what Hawley on Tuesday called a “corrective deed” fixed the original oversight.
It also meant that the Benton parcel now, when officially sold to Vergennes as authorized on Tuesday, will connect two other city-owned parcels along Otter Creek.
Vergennes already leases the land from the Bentons for $1 a year, and floating city docks stretch along its waterfront during warm-weather months. There are also a handful of parking spots on the parcel.
But making further improvements to the land had been a problem because Vergennes does not own the parcel: City officials have discovered foundations or state agencies would not award grants for projects on the land unless the city owned it.
On Tuesday, the council also heard a preliminary report about a study being performed on a nearby, but much larger, piece of property: The 470-acre, state-owned tract in northwestern Vergennes and adjacent Ferrisburgh that includes the 66-acre Northlands Job Corps campus, many acres of farmlands, some wooded areas, and some Otter Creek frontage.
Of that acreage, 330 acres are in Vergennes, including Northlands. David Raphael, a Panton resident and owner of Middlebury firm Landworks, is performing a planning study on the parcel due to be completed by the end of next month.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Raphael shared some early findings:
•  There was strong interest in retaining Job Corps for its value both as a job-training program for disadvantaged youth and as a local economic engine, but that other long-term options — such as commercial, industrial and other educational uses — had been and would still be explored.
•  The campus, the former home of the state-run Weeks School, had historic value that was being assessed, but also is “dated” and would need significant investment at some point.
•  Answers are hard to find for how to deal with two historic buildings not being used by Northlands.
•  The many acres now being farmed should stay agricultural, and the Brands family now farming the land had said they would like to continue leasing it far into the future.
•  The continued use of some of that farmland for application of sludge from Vergennes sewer system lagoons is recommended.
•  Some of the land could be developed for homes, including “different types of housing” that might include affordable homes. Other land could be sold to developers.
•  Some wooded tracts, also rocky, could remain wooded and be used as a source for firewood.
•  Recreational trails could be developed in some areas.
Raphael said the full report should be available to Vergennes and Ferrisburgh officials by the end of August.
The council also for a third time in recent years supported a grant application to fund an 800-foot sidewalk extension on Main Street. Officials hope to run new sidewalk from Vergennes Redemption to Champlain Discount Foods, a project that would also include a crosswalk to the police station.
That work also now has what Hawley acknowledged was a high price tag: The city is seeking $305,000 from the VTrans Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, and the council voted to provide up to a $30,500 match from the Water Tower Fund.
“This is a complicated project,” Hawley said, citing both drainage issues and the need to obtain a number of temporary easements.
“It’s a big project,” he added. “It would be very difficult to do within the constraints of our budget.”
However, Hawley was also more optimistic about this application than the two earlier ones. The first application was rejected because the estimate was unrealistically low, he said, and the second application, which he wrote, lacked detail.
This application, Hawley said, was prepared with the help of the city’s transportation task force, created after the 2014 Vermont Council on Rural Development Community Visit, and its chairman, transportation consultant Greg Edwards, and offers more detail as well as a more realistic price tag.
Vergennes Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett added on Tuesday that the project was also supported in the newly updated municipal plan.
“This thing is a much greater quality application,” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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