Conservation Groups Buy Exit 4 Land Once Slated for Development | Off Message

Conservation Groups Buy Exit 4 Land Once Slated for Development


Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Tim Storrow of the Castanea Foundation - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Tim Storrow of the Castanea Foundation
Randolph developer Jesse "Sam" Sammis spent well more than half a decade seeking the permits for a large-scale development and rest stop around Interstate 89's Exit 4. But that land now is going to be preserved.

At a press conference near the Randolph interchange Tuesday, conservation groups announced that the Castanea Foundation will buy most of the 172-acre parcel. The Montpelier nonprofit will pay $1.2 million for 149 acres, and plans to resell it to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, which supplies milk to Vermont Creamery.* The remaining 22.5 acres will be sold to the Preservation Trust of Vermont, if the organization can raise the agreed upon sum — $1 million — by June 15.

The agreement comes after a lengthy battle between the Greenwich, Conn., developer and local environmentalists. Sammis had been proceeding with the permitting to construct a massive multiuse development at the interchange. Plans included a welcome center, a rest stop, a 180-room hotel and conference center, as well as 274 homes, a fitness center, and light industrial space.

The plan received local permits, but had environmental organizations and some Randolph residents up in arms.

In February 2016, Sammis withdrew his Act 250 proposal. "I saw that it was going to be a long, drawn-out process to move forward with my master plan," Sammis told Seven Days in an interview Monday.

Negotiations immediately began with Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "We spent several months backing and forthing and getting to know each other and seeing how things play out," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust.

In the end, Sammis agreed to sell. He's parting with the whole plot for $2.2 million, which is more than a million dollars less than it was appraised for, Bruhn said.

At Tuesday's news conference, Sammis stood by his wife, Jinny, in front of the undeveloped open fields tinged with the green, and expressed a mix of hope and regret. He started buying up land around the interstate in 1973 with an eye on developing it.
The former plan for the Green Mountain Center - FILE
  • File
  • The former plan for the Green Mountain Center
"Financially, this is not what I had planned," he said of the final agreement.

He praised Miles Hooper, the Ayers Brook farmer who will work the land, in the same breath that he discussed the economic benefits of his original development plan. "I'm sorry we couldn't have done both; I'm going to be honest," he said.

Castanea's portion of the land will be placed under a conservation easement with the Vermont Land Trust, said Tim Storrow, executive director of the foundation. They plan to finalize the agreement with Sammis by June and re-sell the land to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy within the next 24 months at a price to be named.

Hooper said he plans to grow alfalfa and hay the fields on the parcel. He highlighted the shortage of prime ag land in the central Vermont area. As a result, "We need to be very deliberate about the development decisions we make in the future. I think this moment sets a great precedent for that," he said.
Jesse 'Sam' Sammis - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • Jesse 'Sam' Sammis
Sammis has agreed to sell the remaining 22.5 acres, which is located along the interstate and is most desirable for development, to the Preservation Trust of Vermont. But first, the organization must raise $1 million by June 15.

Other environmental organizations will help solicit funds from private donors and foundations. Exit 4 Open Space, a group that opposed the development, is mounting a grassroots campaign to help with the fundraising effort. If the organizations can't raise the cash, Sammis has the option sell the land to a developer.

"It's a big challenge," Bruhn said of the 60-day sprint. But, he added, "It's a special opportunity to protect a critical parcel." So far, he added, the Preservation Trust has come up with $150,000.

Representatives from the organizations praised the views from the interstate across the valley to the Green Mountains, and pointed to the land's agricultural potential.

Sandy Levine, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, called the deal an "absolute victory."

"It's an area very susceptible to sprawl development," she said. "Our goal has always been to create long-term protection."

*Correction, April 18, 2017: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Ayers Brook Goat Dairy's relationship with Vermont Creamery.

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