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Proctor land sale hinges on public access

It saddens me to think if there is a remote possibility that this land would be sold to a buyer who would post it and prevent the public from using it. I encourage you to think long and hard about this offer.
— Matt Trombley, Proctor resident

PROCTOR — If there is a public vote on the potential sale of prized town-owned watershed land in Proctor, it will happen at town meeting in March.
Voters also will decide whether any sale should hinge on keeping the land open to public use and protect the town’s resources.
As the selectboard weighs the investment potential of a proposed $1.5 million sale offered by Rutland resident John Gerlach for the 1,600-acre Chittenden watershed parcel, word of the offer has spread beyond Proctor to multiple outdoor recreation organizations, individuals and nature conservation groups in Addison County and beyond.
A number of people representing those interests attended the board’s regular meeting this past Monday, Dec. 9, where language related to proposed voting articles was discussed following the public comment period.
Proctor’s drinking water ran through the watershed until 2014, when the town discontinued using the Chittenden water treatment plant. The land is also rich in hardwood timber, which has provided a steady source of income for the town. The timber harvested from the land in accordance with the town’s forestry management plan nets roughly $250,000 every 10 years in timber sales.
Gerlach’s attorney William Meub has said his client recently bought 50 acres of land adjacent to the watershed parcel. Meub has also stated that Gerlach has no plans to develop the land.

PUBLIC ACCESS IN JEOPARDY
Despite that assurance, should the parcel be sold, it is possible that public access will be revoked and that is what most concerns those opposed to the potential deal.
The parcel sits adjacent to the Green Mountain National Forest. The Green Mountain Club currently has a right-of-way through the land for hikers, as the parcel is near the Long Trail. The club also has right of first refusal on 50 acres of the watershed land, which is not part of the parcel in question.
The Chittenden Dammers, a VAST snowmobile club, also has a right-of-way permit to cross the land. The Catamount Trail, a cross-country ski trail from Massachusetts to Canada, also runs through the parcel.
The Green Mountain Club has expressed interest in buying the land through the Trust for Public Land. The national forest service and its public partners are also interested in buying the land and keeping the trails accessible to the public.

PUBLIC COMMENT
A dozen people signed up to comment on the proposed land deal Monday night. All were either staunchly against the idea, or at least skeptical and urging caution.
Justin Lindholm of Mendon said that he believes there is much more value to the land than the board either realizes or will acknowledge. The land is assessed at $1.5 million, but he said that is just the value of the real estate.
“Something just doesn’t seem right here,” he said, “that you’re trying to dismiss what you have. $1.5 million is not the value. It does not include the timber value, or the value of the water rights.”
Matt Trombley said the thought of the public being denied access was troubling.
“It saddens me to think there is a remote possibility that this land would be sold to a buyer who would post it and prevent the public from using it. I encourage you to think long and hard about this offer.”
Josh Hardt, an outdoor educator who runs the Moosalamoo program at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon and who grew up in the area and now lives in Hubbardton, remembered his first visit to the Chittenden watershed was as a boy when his father took him on a coming-of-age wilderness trip.
“In Vermont, much of our fiscal security comes from outdoor recreation and is required for a sustainable future,” he said. “In this case, the transition to a conservation-based organization would seem appropriate in lieu of private enterprise. I may be projecting here, but you would get an offer comparable to what you’ve been offered and could conserve the land.”
Gerlach’s attorney Bill Meub was on hand and commented on the proposed deal.
“This shouldn’t be a burden on the people of Proctor,” he said. “They should look at what the opportunity is and what was offered, and that was the only way Mr. Gerlach was thinking, that perhaps it was a win-win for everybody. He strongly supports, and this is all about, Proctor deciding what they should do with this and what is the right thing for them, and the idea of a public vote is exactly what we have supported and expected.”
Meub also pressed for a contract, saying that would be the only way to get to a public vote.
“You may not be able to come to terms, and then all of this energy and all of what’s going on is for something that’s not out there, unless you actually have a contract,” he said. “It’s totally up to you to figure out what’s right, and Mr. Gerlach only wanted to participate so that there could be a discussion about that, and not get in the middle as if he’s a bad guy who’s just going to trash the property, which is totally contrary to anything.”
Meub went on to say that there has been some misinformation circulating about Gerlach and his intentions.
“He really has felt as if he has been treated quite unfairly in terms of how this all came about,” Meub said.

ARTICLE LANGUAGE
The selectboard can legally sell town property without voter approval unless voters submit a petition with at least 5 percent of the town’s voter signatures within 30 days of posted notice objecting and calling for a public vote.
But the selectboard can also opt to let the voters decide whether or not to sell the property instead of requiring a petition, which is what the Proctor selectboard is planning should it decide to move forward with the proposed offer.
On Monday night, the board reviewed the proposed article language for a vote, which reads as follows:
“Article 1:  Shall the Town vote to authorize the Selectboard to sell all or less than all of the interests the Town holds in its watershed lands in Chittenden, Vermont for a price of not less than $1.5 million?
“Article 2:  If Article 1 is approved, shall the Town vote to limit the sale of the watershed lands in Chittenden, Vermont for a price of not less than $1.5 million to an entity that will keep the land open for public use or permit the Town to preserve its resources?”
Kate Wanner, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, was in attendance Monday night and suggested that the board change the language in Article 2 from “vote to limit the sale” to “vote to express a preference for.” She said the current language could negatively affect the appraisal the Green Mountain National Forest would do if it purchases the property because the land would come with limits.
Town attorney Allen George then suggested that Article 2 read as follows (italics for emphasis):
“If Article 1 is approved, shall the Town vote to approve the sale of the watershed lands in Chittenden, Vermont for a price of not less than $1.5 million to an entity or person that will keep the land open for public use or permit the Town to preserve its resources?”
The board agreed to George’s suggested change.
Town Manager Stan Wilbur originally proposed Jan. 13, 2020 for a public vote on the issue. But Proctor resident and library director Lisa Miser, who also takes the meeting minutes, suggested that if the goal is to have as many voters participate as possible, the board should schedule the vote on Town Meeting Day in March. The board agreed and will add the two articles to the Town Meeting ballot in March.

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