MONTPELIER - A classic war between developers and open-space advocates has been underway in Montpelier for more than six years. Both sides have battled hard - one to gain ground, the other to hold onto what it already has. But an agreement signed last week between a local landowner and a national conservation group may have ended the fight.
The Trust for Public Land announced Tuesday it reached an agreement for the purchase of Sabin's Pasture, a 94-acre parcel that has fueled a contentious debate between the landowner, city officials and local conservationists ever since an ambitious proposal to develop the property surfaced in 2001. "From what I know about it, I am absolutely thrilled," Montpelier Mayor Mary Hooper says of the purchase agreement.
While details of the deal are confidential, TPL's state director for Vermont and New Hampshire, Rodger Krussman, says the price is set. He won't release a figure, but a previous appraisal of the land, owned by the Aja and Zorzi families, valued it at around $1.5 million, according to Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser.
Sabin's Pasture, which runs along Barre Street near the Pioneer Street Bridge in downtown Montpelier, is one of the largest and last undeveloped properties in the city. For years, locals have used its woods and fields for hiking, cross-country skiing, birding and sledding. "It's been a dearly loved piece of property," Hooper says. That would explain the duration and ferocity of the battle, which began six years ago when Chittenden County developer Stuart Chase hatched a plan to build hundreds of houses on the property.
A group known as Friends of Sabin's Pasture quickly formed and grassroots activists went to work spreading the word about Chase's plans. "Save Sabin's Pasture" bumper stickers showed up on cars. City officials listened, and drafted zoning changes for the property that stymied the development, eventually driving the builder away.
Debate over what should be done with the property lagged on until Neal Rodar, former director of Woodbury College's Dispute Resolution Center, stepped in. Both sides give Rodar credit for resolving the matter.
Krussman says TPL will work with local officials and community members to develop a conservation plan for the land. "Our hope is that we can structure this future ownership so that it is viewed as being a community asset. I would define that as being the vast majority of the property permanently conserved as a park and open space for the community to have permanent access to," Krussman said. He says a portion along Barre Street could be developed.
The property is currently closed to the public, but TPL will solicit community input in the coming weeks. "We are looking to partner with someone who will be the long-term steward of the property," Krussman says. The City of Montpelier is one of the entities TPL has in mind, along with "some other interested folks." Hooper says, "All options are on the table."