Seminary to rise from the ashes of Pine Ridge campus

Jamie Flinchbaugh, a volunteer with NETS, works on cleaning up the former Pine Ridge School property on Saturday. NETS plans to re-open the school as a seminary.
Jamie Flinchbaugh, a volunteer with NETS, works on cleaning up the former Pine Ridge School property on Saturday. NETS plans to re-open the school as a seminary.

Property sells for $2M less than initial price

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

Something’s been happening amidst the aging yellow buildings on the campus of the former Pine Ridge School, but class is not in session.

Over the past two weeks, two buildings have been set aflame at the 9505 Williston Road complex. Firefighters from Hinesburg, Charlotte, Shelburne and Richmond joined Williston firefighters in specialized training during a variety of drills which reenacted emergency situations in live fire settings.

“Having the ability to train with live fire is a rare but extremely beneficial opportunity which Williston Fire was happy to share with some of our mutual aid partners,” wrote Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton on the department’s Facebook page.

Trained under Williston Senior Firefighter Prescott Nadeau and Burlington Senior Firefighter Andrew Pitrowiski, teams performed more than 30 “training evolutions,” he noted, that involved several days of training in techniques of hoseline advancement, ventilation, self rescue and bailout, and use of compressed air foam, with “many of them done under live fire conditions.”

The building burndowns also marked the start of work at 9505 Williston Road. After more than a year of the New England Theological Seminary (NETS) and the town planning for the group’s takeover of the Pine Ridge campus, it is being transformed into a training center for new pastors in the Baptist ministry.

“It was the old Pine Ridge facility and now we’re trying to resurrect it — we’re in the resurrection business after all,” said Dave Appenzeller, NETS executive director.

By September, six or seven couples in NETS’ internship program will be moving in, Appenzellar said, but at full capacity it will likely be smaller than Pine Ridge, which had 98 year-round students.

On its website, NETS calls itself a “comprehensive training and sending center for church planters and their wives. Our mission is to plant and establish gospel-driven churches in New England and beyond.”

In a presentation to the town last year, the organization said it expected to have up to 10 students with families living there in a two-year residency program, and up to 34 students completing a year-long internship program — though Appenzeller said Tuesday they still hadn’t fully decided the details, given the facilities they have available. To the town, NETS said it anticipated 80 to 90 on the campus during the daytimes, including non-residing staffers.

$2M less than listed

People’s United Bank sold the school campus to NETS for $1.5 million on June 17, a steep discount from the roughly $3.5 million the private school’s sprawling campus of 14 buildings and scenic 128-acre plot of land was originally priced at in commercial listings.

Even the last viable proposal for the space, in 2011, by Underhill-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center Maple Leaf Farm, priced the purchase and sales agreement of the property at $2.85 million, although the plans were withdrawn in 2013, after the organization estimated renovations to reach more than $300,000, Seven Days reported, and after facing zoning concerns related to the town’s designation of the area as agricultural/rural/residential (which limited how it could be developed.)

“It’s not really a surprise the property sold for a lot less than what it was listed for; the property sat vacant for a long time, and there was water damage sustained in a number of the buildings,” noted Ken Belliveau, Williston’s planning and zoning director. “It was a very eerie thing when you would go on that property, all of the stuff that was there when Pine Ridge closed was literally just left there,” he said.

“So you had school vans sitting there rotting away; you’d go in the classrooms and there were all kinds of computers and stuff that had been sitting here for several years. Computer equipment doesn’t increase in value as it ages,” he said.

“If the bank had taken a different approach with the property, they might have gotten some money out of it early on,” but instead, the items became a burden to prospective buyers, he noted.

Fire fighter Dan Sisco leaves the Williston Fire Department's controlled burn at the former Pine Ridge School in Williston on Saturday. The fire department uses these opportunities to get real fire ground training in a controlled situation.
Fire fighter Dan Sisco leaves the Williston Fire Department’s controlled burn at the former Pine Ridge School in Williston on Saturday. The fire department uses these opportunities to get real fire ground training in a controlled situation.

Fresh paint, new plans

Pine Ridge School shuttered its mission as a private school for students with learning differences in 2009, due to declining enrollment and mounting debt, the Observer reported. After unsuccessful bids at a private sale, it was taken into possession by the bank, People’s United, and has been in limbo since 2011.

NETS Institute for Church Planting, which was originally established by the Christ Memorial Church in Williston, met informally with the Williston Planning Commission in late 2014 and signed a purchase and sale agreement for the property in March of last year. The rest of the preparatory work has focused on getting the zoning change to make its planned use of the space a reality: to use the property as a religious school with some housing components for men to live, along with their families, as they are training to become pastors in New England.

Appenzeller and his staff have been working at the school’s campus daily, painting buildings, renovating interiors of intended dormitories and overseeing the torching of buildings they’re not going to keep. Eventually, half of the original Pine Ridge campus will be torched, Appenzeller said.

The next burns will take place at the end of September, with three more buildings going down, and an additional two have been permitted for destruction in December, but may or may not be taken down at that time. The buildings included an arts center, science building, health facility, offices and temporary dorms built in the 1970s that were grandfathered into the campus, but never built for extended use.

“Those are more in the middle of the campus, so it will be a little more difficult to see,” said Appenzeller. “They’re really in dilapidated condition; they’re old, they really were a little scary,” he said. “The fire department was very interested in obtaining all the training they possibly could, and it was kind of a win-win.”

While NETS is keeping the six largest buildings on campus, as well as a maintenance shed, Appenzeller described the burn buildings as ancillary, with little useful function.

Land, sales open to public

Since much of the campus was left untouched for seven years, there is a great deal of property that never went to auction or liquidation, so Appenzeller says he can foresee selling much of it. In the science building, he said, “we’ve been giving away microscopes and those kind of things that came out of that building.”

“We need to first determine what we really need for our own purposes, but there is more here than what we need. We’re looking at dressers, beds, tables, furniture, chairs, office equipment, file cabinets,” and more.

In addition to the property sales, a massive swath of land — 42 acres — will be deeded to the town for public use in the coming weeks, as part of the terms of the sale agreement, Belliveau and Appenzeller said.

Public access to the land would open up a wooded area that formerly was laced with trails used by Pine Ridge students, but which have now grown over, on a hilly area with 300-400-foot peaks, Appenzeller said.

“There’s trail access from Governor Chittenden Road to get into that property, and there may be other plans to integrate a trail system, so we were part of that scenario where hopefully we’d have a nice little trail system back there for people to use.” The transfer would happen by late August or early September, he said.