St. George farmer seeks land swap (12/17/09)

Deal exchanges municipal, private property

Dec. 17, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

A St. George farmer has proposed an unusual land swap that would permit him to build homes on town-owned land while preserving his undeveloped property.

Dan Pillsbury owns Breezy Valley Farms along with his brother. He received town approval for a seven-unit subdivision on the land just south of the St. George-Williston town line.

But Pillsbury would prefer not to construct the homes on the farm, which has been operated by his family since 1935. Instead, he wants the town to give him municipal land at St. George Town Center. In return, Pillsbury would cede to the town a slice of his farm.

It would be difficult to see a part of the farm his grandfather bought decades ago and where his grandchildren now live turned into a subdivision, Pillsbury said.

Hay is still harvested, but the cows were sold three years ago. The modern realities of farming made him consider a subdivision.

“I’ve accepted that’s what needs to be done,” Pillsbury said. But if he could avoid development with the land swap, “it could be positive for everybody.”

He has discussed the land exchange with town officials over the past several months. The Selectboard is scheduled to talk about the proposal at its meeting this Thursday, Dec. 17. The session starts at 7 p.m.

The farm is located at what amounts to St. George’s front door, the first open land southbound motorists see when they enter town on Vermont 2A. Building the subdivision on municipal property instead would fulfill a goal of St. George’s comprehensive plan, which calls for grouping new development near the middle of town.

Details of the arrangement have yet to be settled. But St. George Selectboard member Phil Gingrow said the idea is to give Pillsbury the right to develop a portion of town land in return for agreeing to forgo construction at his farm. Pillsbury would eventually turn over ownership of a piece of his land to the town.

The town’s Development Review Board approved the subdivision last year. Marie Mastro, who chairs the board, said the permit allows him to build seven homes, which would be clustered on three acres.

The approval requires Pillsbury to conserve much of the remaining 70-acre, planned-unit development as open space, she said. The project would occupy less than half the 160-acre farm.

One of the subdivision’s conditions of approval requires disclosure to future homeowners of a major power transmission line on the property. Mastro said the condition was imposed to protect the town from potential liability issues when a planned upgrade of the line by Vermont Electric Power Company — more commonly known as VELCO — is completed.

Pillsbury said his proposed land swap would not sidestep the power line issue, which may worry prospective homeowners. He noted that the line also runs through the Town Center property.

The deal would involve an exchange of land, not just a trade of development rights, Pillsbury said. But it may not be a one-to-one acreage swap, he said, because the lots approved for development at his farm differ in size and quality from the parcels at Town Center.

Scott Baker, chairman of the St. George Planning Commission, said because of the land swap’s novelty, some residents may worry that there is a hidden agenda. He said the proposal is instead a selfless gesture toward the greater good of St. George.

“I think he’s done something very admirable,” Baker said. “He’s said, ‘I’ve got this approved subdivision. Let me put it on hold and see if we can work out something with the town.’”

Pillsbury hopes publicity about the land swap will draw comment from residents, who would have to approve the arrangement.

“When we have Town Meeting in March, I want to make sure it’s not the first conversation we have with residents,” he said.