By Jess Wisloski
Editor’s note: As an exclusive report, we ask that any information used from this story, including the publication of this piece itself, rewritten or repurposed for original or refashioned reporting, please link back and name the Williston Observer as the original source of the story.
The Catamount Outdoor Family Center, which has operated in Williston as a recreational center for cross-country skiing and mountain biking since 1978, may soon belong to the town of Williston.
The property’s owners, Lucy and Jim McCullough (who is also a Democratic legislator in the state House of Representatives), said they were working with the Trust for Public Land, a national organization devoted to creating new parks and protecting land, and planned to sell most of their 400-acre wooded property to Williston for use as a protected town forest. The land has been owned by McCullough’s family for generations.
At a Selectboard meeting Jan. 3, Kate Warner, a project manager from the Trust for Public Land, explained how the transaction would work, and what might happen to the beloved recreational center when Catamount changes from a private nonprofit to a public park. The Trust’s role would only extend to securing funding and helping ease the transfer of the 359 acres of land, but it would not have any ownership stake or oversight, Warner said.
“We won’t have any future interest in the property after the next year and a half, while we help the town acquire this property,” she said.
As the McCulloughs listened from the audience, Warner joined Melinda Scott, the town’s senior conservation planner, to field questions from the Selectboard and community. In addition to the McCullough’s acreage , neighbors Stephen and Debra Page are also contributing an additional 16 acres of forest land. The McCulloughs would keep about 40 acres that include three rental homes and their own residence, a stately white home built in 1796 by the state’s first governor, Thomas Chittenden, for his son, which they operate as a B&B. McCullough inherited the property from his mother.
When the fundraising, which is led by the Trust, is complete, the town will buy the land from the McCulloughs. It is likely it will pay less than market price, Warner told the Observer, due to the limits of grant funding.
The first step toward acquisition was for the town to write a letter of support, Warner said, who requested that as the outcome of last week’s meeting and discussion. Co-chair Jeff Fehrs, an avid mountain biker who competes in the weekly races held at Catamount in the summer, offered to recuse himself from the discussion as a neighbor of the property.
“To be quite honest, my opinions about this would be quite strong, so it would be hard for me to claim to be unbiased in whether we should move forward on this or not,” he said, but Chairman Terry Macaig, who is the other Vermont House member for Williston, reassured him it was fine. “I don’t want to in any way damage the process or damage my reputation,” said Fehrs. Macaig invited him to stay on the board, though, “to ask questions, and we’ll see how you feel.”
Board members asked if there were restrictions on the land if brought into conservation through the Trust, to which Warner noted that it would prevent the town from ever subdividing the land or selling it; it would require the land to stay 75 percent forested (which is the ratio it currently is); and the town can’t implement differing fee structures — for example, Williston residents pay one fee while the rest of the public pays a different rate.
Fehrs asked if the board that currently runs the nonprofit that operates the Catamount Outdoor Family Center would stay in place, to which Warner said there were some changes that would need to to occur.
Basically, the Trust would help draft a Memorandum of Understanding “between the town and the nonprofit…We want to make sure the town and the nonprofit Catamount center figures out how they’re going to work together and roles and responsibilities in the future are all secured before the town owns the land.”
Lucy McCullough said when the couple spoke to the center’s board of directors, there was interest even if the land is sold. “Hopefully, they [the Catamount center] will continue to be tenants for the town, operating the recreation aspect of it,” she said. “That’s the hope. And we’ll see how that goes, if they’re still interested [after the sale], in managing the property. It sounds like they are.”
While Warner said it wasn’t a condition of the Trust’s work — which will involve applying to two public funding sources and 11 private grants to get money — that a recreational element stay in the Williston park, she said it seemed to be agreed upon.
“I think it’s an understanding that we want to make sure the programming continues.” At present, the town doesn’t have the staffing to keep up with a new park, Scott noted, but she said she hoped, if funding was secured, the upkeep would be hammered out in time. “I think that everybody — at least, everyone in the town in the Planning Department, folks in the Selectboard and on the Conservation Committee — think it’s a great opportunity for the town, and there are a lot of details that need to be worked out for sure, but I think that those details, we can work them out,” said Scott.
The town issued the letter of support requested by the Trust on Jan. 6, addressed to the U.S. Forestry Service. It offered to commit $400,000 from town reserves to match a federal grant, if they won it. “The project is actively supported by members of the community, local and regional partners,” stated the letter, signed by Macaig.
Lucy McCullough said the couple decided to sell their land because they were aging, and needed a way to provide for themselves while still hoping to keep the land undeveloped. “We have been doing this land-use project over the last 38 years, and in doing it, we have had no… we’ve paid ourselves very little,” she said. By land-use project, she means trying to keep a home-grown recreational space going on land that ceased operations as a dairy farm in the 1950s.
“We have no savings, we have no retirement funds, and we’re thinking it’s time for us to start considering how we’re going to take care of ourselves. Also, we don’t want to leave our kids with the burden of the whole place, either.”
Year after year, Catamount Outdoor Family Center has faced the struggle of maintaining the land, paying property taxes on the massive swath, and not bringing in enough in service fees or rentals to really even cover costs. In 2005, they changed over to a not-for-profit, in hopes that bringing in stakeholders would lessen the burden, as it allowed the family to lease their land to the center, and have a board help run operations. They added the word “outdoor” to the title to qualify as a different entity, and while the center is thriving, the lease income didn’t help much, McCullough said.
“That hasn’t been the silver bullet to save anything, but it has brought in extra funds for the center to continue to operate. But they haven’t been able to really pay us enough to keep the property sustained,” she said. “We’ve always wanted to keep the land open and undeveloped for the public use because that’s something we enjoy seeing and participating in — and this came along. It sounds like the perfect answer for us, to do that, and carry our vision forward in keeping it open to the public.”