Town turns down chance to buy land (5/21/09)

Property mulled for community center

May 21, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday declined to buy land that an advisory group said the town should consider for a community center.

The 7-acre parcel, located across from the police station off U.S. 2 in Williston Village, is owned by John and Heather Remy. A homebuilder offered the couple $525,000, but the town had the right to match any offer for the land, which borders the recreation fields behind Williston Central School.

The Selectboard first discussed the purchase earlier this month but delayed a decision until various boards were consulted. The Williston School Board and the Conservation Commission expressed little interest in the land. But the Recreation Committee said the Selectboard should at least consider the purchase.

The Selectboard discussed the recommendation for only a few minutes on Monday before unanimously voting not to buy the land.

“We can’t afford it,” said board member Ted Kenney.

Board member Jeff Fehrs said it would make little sense to spend the money without first knowing how the community center would be funded and where it should be located.

“We are certainly not hearing any clear use of the land right now,” he said.

Recreation Committee member Mike Healey said in an interview before the meeting that the group was not adamant that the Remy property was the right site for a community center. But they felt it was worth considering.

“Our thought is we should at least explore it because the need (for a community center) is so great in town,” he said.

Williston has long held the so-called right of first refusal on the Remy property. The clause came attached to the deed when the couple bought the land in 1992.

The Selectboard’s decision closes the books on a long-running saga for the Remys, who first filed an application to subdivide the land years ago but were repeatedly stymied in trying to win a town permit to develop the property.

“It’s been since 2001,” said John Remy in an interview after the board’s decision. “We’re looking forward to actually putting a shovel in the ground.”

The town’s approval of a development permit came after a pair of appeals before Vermont Environmental Court and what he said were expenditures totaling tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers and permitting fees.

The Development Review Board first approved an eight-home subdivision in 2006. But when the Remys went to get building permits, they were told by former zoning administrator D.K. Johnston that the homes exceeded limits on square footage spelled out in the conditions of approval.

Johnston counted garages in his calculation. The DRB later affirmed the decision.

The Remys appealed. The Environmental Court ruled that the town used improper procedure in deciding the matter and vacated the DRB’s decision.

After consulting with an attorney, Ken Belliveau, the town’s current planning director and zoning administrator, decided the garages should not be counted in the square footage, clearing the way for the development.

Tom Hergenrother Jr. plans to buy the land. He operates Colchester-based Hergenrother Custom Development LLC. His father’s company, a separate business, has built homes in the Coyote Run and Martell Hill subdivisions.

Hergenrother said he intends to start work on an access road for the development and home construction by the end of this month.

Meanwhile, the proposal to build a community center remains unsettled. A task force studied the issue, and in a 2007 report said it was undecided as to whether the better location would be in the village or near Taft Corners. The report said the best location would depend on what type of facility was constructed.

A second study group, an outgrowth of WING, or Williston Into the Next Generation, has also not decided on a location. The group’s leader, Sharon Gutwin, is currently talking with Town Manger Rick McGuire about formulating a business plan to determine how ongoing operation of a community center would be funded.

Virtually everyone involved has agreed that Williston needs a community center. But coming up with money for land, a new building and ongoing expenses has been a stumbling block.

Healey said he understood that without funding the Recreation Committee’s recommendation would be moot.

“If we don’t have the money, then we don’t have the money and the answer is no,” he said.