On Tuesday night, August 23, my wife, Stacy and I, along with our daughter and several of our neighbors, strolled over to the Malletts Bay property formerly known as Camp Holy Cross. The town of Colchester was hosting the first of two open houses for local residents interested in eyeballing the property, which went on the market just last year.
On October 4, Colchester voters will decide whether to buy the 26-acre camp from the Catholic Diocese of Vermont for a cool $4.5 million. As readers may recall, the diocese was forced to sell off the land in order to cover the cost of its legal settlements with victims of a priest sex-abuse case — another step toward absolving the sins of the father, as it were.
For Stacy and me, this was the first time we could sneak a peek at land we pass every day but that has remained hidden for years behind a dense thicket of trees and forbidding "NO TRESPASSING" signs. Plus, the offer of free refreshments made it a no-brainer.
At about 5:30 p.m., our contingent of baby strollers, backpacks and bicycles arrived at the camp. Already, the dirt parking lot beside the "chapel," as well as the overflow parking area, were filled with cars. A line of residents waiting patiently for free food snaked away from a massive grill. Manning the fire was Colchester Police Chief Charles Kirker, who did more than his fair share of "serving" his citizens — specifically, several hundred burgers and hotdogs.
Ostensibly, the point of this two-hour show-and-tell, attended by various and sundry town officials as well as more than 150 residents, was to impress upon voters the magnitude of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. As I heard repeated often, by town officials and residents alike, if Colchester voters don't jump on this prime chunk of lakefront real estate, then some savvy developer will swoop in and turn it into a gated community of McMansions, making this visit the first and last time most of us will ever see it.
As someone who firmly believes in investing in public infrastructure, especially new parks, I supported the idea of the town buying this land even before seeing it firsthand. Still, as a voter who may be asked to pony up an extra $20 to $40 per year in property taxes to pay for it, I wanted to see exactly what we'd be getting for our tax dollars. I must admit, except for the impressive views of Lake Champlain, the 1600 feet of sandy beach and a well-maintained chapel, the facilities were, shall we say, underwhelming.
There are about a dozen cabins and outbuildings on the property, most of which look as though they were built during the Eisenhower administration. Many, like the ramshackle bunk pictured at right, look as though they'll either need to be drastically renovated or razed. Other features, such as the "tennis courts," will soon be converted, by forces of nature, from an asphalt to grass surface.
As this was a true "open house," virtually every structure on the property was unlocked and available for public gawking. What our company of gawkers found odd was the unmistakeable impression that the camp's previous occupants seemed to have just walked away one day without even packing.
For example, as we inspected what was, presumably, the camp infirmary, we discovered a bed, still made with blankets and pillows, as well as an old TV set, books, clothing and various other odds and ends suggesting that someone had squatted here recently. In an adjoining room we found a medical backboard and head braces for immobilizing a patient. Based on their vintage, I half expected to find an iron lung parked in another room, just beyond the tuberculosis ward.
In another, much larger building, which presumably served as the camp's main dining hall, we discovered a motorcycle, snowmobile and outboard marine engine, all of which most belong to the property's caretaker. Although this building is in somewhat better shape than the others, it, too, is in dire need of repairs and renovations, not to mention a good fumigation.
One of the few charming structures in the camp is a handicapped-accessible treehouse (right) that overlooks the lake. Like the one in Burlington's Oakledge Park, it has a long, meandering ramp and live trees growing through the inside. This one, however, is more shielded from the elements, which may explain why someone parked a camping tent inside, along with recently used camping gear. Another squatter, perhaps?
Although I would have liked to attend the monthly selectboard meeting that was held immediately following the open house, it was preempted by the nightly duties of tending to my 2-year-old daughter.
Still, as we made our way home, we discussed the many possible uses of the property. In additional to the expected recreational activities of fishing, camping, boating, as well as ice fishing and cross-country skiing in the winter, the land could easily be rented out for wedding ceremonies and receptions, community meetings, concerts, conventions and events such as car shows and festivals. Got other suggestions? Send 'em my way.
Whether town residents will choose to fork over this much money for the camp remains to be seen. After all, Colchester residents are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to approving school budgets. Nevertheless, selectboard members will get another chance to make their case at a second open house, scheduled for Sunday, September 25, from noon to 5 p.m.
And, for those residents who may be skeptical about investing $4.5 million in property without a plan in place, another town meeting is scheduled for Monday, August 29, at the Colchester Senior Citizen Center, where residents will present various ideas on how the property should be used. Or not.