Struggling Catamount considers development

July 17, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff �

All is quiet during a recent Friday afternoon visit to Catamount Outdoor Family Center. Only the faint rustle of leaves and the distant chirp of birds can be heard at one spot along the 20 miles of trails that run like veins through the 500-acre facility.

The silence is almost startling, especially if you've just come from bustling Taft Corners, Vermont's biggest retail center, located just a few miles west.

Catamount's unspoiled land has played a central role in the town's history. Thomas Chittenden, Vermont's first governor and Williston's founder, built a two-story brick home here in 1796. Farming has come and gone, but the rolling landscape framed by distant mountains remains much as it was more than two centuries ago.

Observer photo by Greg Elias
Lucy and Jim McCullough pose near a pond at Catamount Outdoor Family Center. The couple is considering developing a portion of the 500-acre facility to ensure it remains financially solvent well into the future.

But change may be coming. This spring, a master plan outlining development possibilities was completed. While offering few specifics, the conceptual plan suggests that development could include dozens of residences, a "magic building" to support recreation programs and other structures.

Despite rising property taxes and increasing maintenance expenses, Jim and Lucy McCullough have stubbornly clung to the land, which Jim's great-grandfather bought in 1873. Since opening Catamount in 1978, they have tried nearly everything to keep it financially viable. They've grown Christmas trees, built an ice-skating rink, opened their home to bed-and-breakfast customers and converted the operation into a nonprofit.

Thousands of people visit the recreation center each year, paying daily use fees or buying annual memberships to bike or ski on the trails. Summer camps attract hundreds of youngsters and generate additional revenue.

Still, Catamount remains on shaky financial ground, with expenses exceeding revenue by nearly $50,000 in 2006, according to the nonprofit's tax return, a public record. The 2007 tax return has not been filed, but Lucy McCullough said Catamount's financial picture improved last year.

Yet user fees haven't been generating enough revenue to cover rising expenses, Jim McCullough said. Catamount has also been less than lucrative for the four family members who work there. Combined, they drew only $67,611 in salaries in 2006, according to the tax return.

So the couple, who operate the center along with their daughter, Abbie, and her husband, Eric Bowker, are considering development. But they vow to resist the kind of cookie-cutter subdivision or high-priced homes that have replaced so much former farmland in Vermont.

"If we just needed to capitalize, which we do, that would be a solution," Jim McCullough said. "We've got a hilltop that you could put a dozen million-dollar home sites on. Then that dozen families would have that hilltop. Then tens of thousands of people — into perpetuity — would not get to use it again."


Plan short on specifics

A 23-page master plan completed in May provides a broad outline of potential development but leaves specifics to be decided later.

At least 75 percent of the currently undeveloped land will be set aside for "wildlife habitat, recreation and natural serenity," according to the plan. Portions of the remaining land would be developed in a "sensitive and appropriate manner."

Development could include an unspecified number of residential units. One part of the plan indicates that septic systems could serve at least 80 homes on one part of the property. Another section calculates a total of 40 to 44 housing units.

The plan deliberately omits specifics because it remains to be seen how the various elements will fit together, said Jim McCullough. The idea is to get the right mix to preserve recreation opportunities and open land.

"We're not doing this for housing," he said. "We're doing it to create the working landscape that supports the needs of the community and Catamount."

Development could also include a 7,800-square-foot "magic building," which would serve as an indoor refuge for those participating in outdoor recreation. It may contain office space and locker rooms with showers. Other buildings could house an indoor ice skating rink and pool.

The plan talks at length about minimizing the impact of development on the environment and Catamount's natural beauty. Clustered housing on small lots are one possibility, as are live-work units for Catamount employees. Power for the magic building and indoor pool could be provided by wind turbines or solar panels.

Permitting process

Before anything is built, however, plans will have to clear numerous permitting hurdles.

Catamount is located in the town's agricultural-rural zoning district, where only farming and limited residential development is permitted. The district allows a maximum of one home for every two acres, which would in theory permit more than 200 homes to be built.

But other zoning restrictions further restrict development, said David Yandell, chairman of the Williston Planning Commission.

"The truth is, there is no likelihood it will ever be developed that densely," Yandell said.

Recent changes to Williston's land-use ordinance gives properties like Catamount a chance to work outside of the conventional zoning. Called the specific plan option, the provision could allow Catamount to propose development that includes "substantial public benefits" and in return be exempt from zoning requirements. The ordinance lists a commitment to conserve open space among the factors that qualify as a public benefit.

But a specific plan also triggers a more stringent review process. Approvals are needed by the Planning Commission and the Selectboard. A citizen committee would be formed to provide input on plan particulars.

Catamount has yet to formally submit an application to the town. Lucy McCullough said the nonprofit's board is scheduled next month to talk about when that application should move forward.

Community resource

Much is at stake, not just for Catamount, but for the community as a whole, said Williston resident Rick Blount, who serves on the nonprofit's governing board. He said Catamount, which he has frequented for 20 years, is the kind of place that separates Vermont from other states and Williston from other suburbs.

"I've become more and more aware of what an amazing resource it is, and how endangered this type of place is, not just in Vermont but everywhere," he said.

He said Catamount's continued existence speaks volumes about Vermont values and the McCulloughs' commitment to the land.

"They could make a lot of money selling the place," he said. "But they are thinking generations down the road."

How long can Catamount hold on with revenue-producing development likely years away? The McCulloughs said they don't know. It is clear, however, that the couple, who lease their land to the nonprofit, face increasing financial pressure.

A recent town-wide reappraisal increased the assessed value of their land by 64 percent. That will likely result in a steep property tax hike. The McCulloughs have appealed the appraisal.

Stepped-up fundraising efforts may help. Catamount received about $40,000 in donations in 2007, Lucy McCullough said, roughly double the previous year's amount.

The McCullough's said they hope the plan will keep Catamount open for public recreation and the land in their family for generations to come.

"My family has had the goal since the early 1900s, well before I was born, to have the property under a single manager anActive Imaged family ownership," Jim McCullough said. "So we want to honor that with this plan.

"Catamount was our land-use experiment. People will tell you today that the highest and best use of farmland in Chittenden County is to sell it for development. But we disagree." �