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WTF: What's Up With the Long-Defunct Sand Bar Inn?

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Vintage aerial shot of the Sand Bar Inn - COURTESY OF MARK NAUD
  • Courtesy Of Mark Naud
  • Vintage aerial shot of the Sand Bar Inn

Conventional wisdom holds that the first three rules for choosing commercial real estate are location, location and location. If that's the case, what's the deal with the old Sand Bar Inn, a long-vacant motel on the west side of the Sandbar Causeway in South Hero?

If ever a spot were prime for commercial ka-ching, this highly visible, 3.7-acre waterfront lot on Route 2 would seem to check all the boxes. It offers spectacular panoramic views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, its own beach access on Outer Malletts Bay, boat slips directly across the road, and Sand Bar State Park about a mile away. It's close to two large population centers — Chittenden County and Montréal — accessible via Interstate 89, and situated in a year-round vacationers' paradise not yet saturated with lodgings and eateries.

Developers would also be pleased to know that the site has all the necessary permits in place, no costly or time-consuming environmental review required, a rarity for lakefront development. And, according to its owners, it wouldn't need to be rezoned to accommodate a new motel, restaurant or residential community.

Inexplicably, the Sand Bar Inn's website, last updated in 2007, still advertises cottages, lakefront dining, a marina and special events catering. The site even claims that the inn is currently "closed for renovations," though the only signs of repair on a recent July day were new windows installed at least a decade ago. But except for a weekend-long art installation in July 2018 at the inn, titled "From Away," by Burlington-based Overnight Projects, the dilapidated motel has sat unused and unvisited for 14 years, its paint peeling, its roof missing shingles and holes gaping in the siding.

"I'm flabbergasted that no one has stepped up and tried to make a run at this property," said Yves Bradley, vice president of commercial brokerage at Pomerleau Real Estate in Burlington, which currently lists the property for sale at $795,000. "But it'll happen."

The last decade notwithstanding, Bradley's optimism seems warranted. For nearly a century, the Sand Bar Inn was a popular restaurant and overnight spot for visitors to Grand Isle before it closed for good in 2005.

Teresa Robinson, a retired history teacher and former president of the South Hero Historical Society, confirmed via email that the inn was built in 1900 by Benajah Phelps, a toll keeper who collected fares on Sandbar Bridge, a predecessor to the modern causeway running between Milton and South Hero. Originally called the Phelps House, it lodged hunters and fishermen visiting Grand Isle.

"In the early 1900s, Benajah would pick up people coming off the train across the Colchester Causeway to South Hero," Robinson wrote. "The Phelps family lived upstairs, and sons Sydney and Herbert inherited it in 1910 when Benajah died."

In 1923, the inn was sold and renamed the Sand Bar Inn. In 1956, the hotel was converted into a restaurant, and the motel was added. That same year, Robinson noted, the original tollhouse — unused for decades because the causeway became free to travel in 1906 — was relocated to Milton.

The Sand Bar Inn operated throughout the 1970s and '80s until its steady decline in the '90s, when it went into bankruptcy. In 1999, the property was purchased by business partners Mark Naud and Marco DiCarlo, who made a brief go at resurrecting it.

However, as Naud explained, because there was a lot of deferred maintenance on the buildings, some were too costly to bring up to code and had to be demolished. By 2005, the remaining motel, restaurant and marina were no longer financially viable, and the entire business was shuttered. The great recession hit soon thereafter, Naud said, and securing financing for a new project became "untenable."

So what's to come on this spot? According to Bradley, there's been "a fair amount of interest" in recent months, including three inquiries in a single day. The biggest issue with the property, he noted, is concern that it's on the water and a misperception that it's in a flood zone.

"It has been a little bit perplexing," said Naud, a longtime environmental and land-use attorney. He suggested that one reason developers may be gun-shy is because the site is not a "traditional plug-and-play opportunity," meaning they'd have to install a modern water treatment and septic system.

Then there's the public perception to overcome: People believe that the location is blighted.

"The problem with a property like this that sits is that people go by and think, There's something wrong with it. That's why it hasn't sold," Bradley said. "And little by little, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

He suggested that the site would be a great spot for a tiny-house development, Nantucket-style cottages or as a year-round event space.

"It's all very feasible," he added. "We just haven't found the right person who wants to do it yet."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Why Has a Scenic Motel on Lake Champlain Sat Dormant for Years?"

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