December 6 Vote to Determine Charter Changes and Land Swap

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Thursday December 01, 2011

South Burlington will hold a special election on Tuesday, December 6 to vote on three proposals which will appear on two ballots.  Polls will be open at three locations from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Articles I and II involve possible charter changes, which must be approved by the legislature if voters accept them.  The timing of the special election could allow the Article I and II charter changes to take place before the March town meeting.

Article III involves a proposed Land Exchange and conservation easement in and aroundthe Wheeler Nature Park off Dorset Street.

School Board Chair Richard Cassidy, City Council Chair Sandy Dooley, City Council Clerk Rosanne Greco, and South Burlington Land Trust Secretary Elizabeth Milizia spoke Tuesday on Channel 17 about the three proposals.  Rob Reiber served as the host of the thirty-minute panel presentation.

Article I: Charter Amendment Regarding City and School Budget Voting
The first item to be considered is a proposed City Charter amendment regarding voting of budgets.  Currently, if the city or school budgets fail twice, the City or School Board must determine the “net cost of operations,” factoring in cost-of-living. This could create a situation in which the voters disapprove of budgets, but actually end up with a higher budget and higher taxes. 

School Board Chair Cassidy explained on Tuesday, “We’re in an unusual situation compared to most communities in the state.”  South Burlington had previously allowed for the Board and City Council to approve budgets without a vote if they were “within a certain limit.”  Cassidy said, “It provided both Council and our Board with a target to work at that seemed like a reasonable target and provided for continuing but slow and steady growth.”  Some were pleased with this, but others felt it did not seem democratic. It sometimes “left voters feeling dissatisfied,” said Cassidy. 

The amendment was proposed by resident Jay Zaetz who felt the current system had created a need for change. The City Council asked the Charter Committee to consider possible changes and the School Board examined it and made further recommendations.

Article II: Charter Amendment Regarding Reappraisal

The second item is a proposed City Charter amendment regarding reappraisal.  Currently, the language of the charter mandates reappraisals every three years; the last reappraisal happened in 2006 at a cost of $390,700.  The charter goes beyond the state requirements, which mandate that reappraisals occur if the Common Level of Appraisal falls below 80% or if the Coefficient of Dispersion rises about 120%.  The amended charter would have the city follow state regulations and eliminate the three-year cycle. 

City Council Chair Dooley explained that the three-year provision predates state law that has been put into effect “to make sure towns are doing a good job of doing their appraisals.”  She said that from 2007 and on the city has been within the range that the state deems appropriate.  “We’re doing very well by those measures,” and, “we believe these measures are good ones,” she said, referring to the Common Level of Appraisal and the Coefficient of Dispersion. 

Dooley emphasized that people would still be able to appeal their assessments at any time of year.  The panel shared that they appreciate feedback and input.  Greco urged people to vote and “to keep communicating with use of email, phone, snail mail, so [City Councilors] can find out what residents want.”  The exact language of the proposed charter changes can be found at the city’s website,

Article III: Land Exchange and Conservation Easement

Lastly, voters will be asked to decide on a proposed land exchange and conservation easement. Article III differs from the other two in that it is not a charter change.

The city has been involved in litigation with Highlands Development/J.A McDonald since the Development Review Board rejected portions of an amended master plan for the 400-acre-plus build-out that includes residential neighborhoods and the VT National Country Club golf course along Dorset Street.

City Councilor Greco explained the background; “Since about 2001, the City of South Burlington has been in litigation with a developer. We have reached a proposed settlement out of court that will stop the legal cost to both of us and yet compromise, so that both the developer and the city get some parts of what they want.  The developer would be allowed to build most of the units that he wanted—four short of what he wanted.” Housing types would range from single family homes up to four dwelling units, not the 9 dwelling units originally proposed by the developer, according to Greco.  “The city would get the right to conserve some of the very valuable land that we were concerned about originally,” added Greco.  This land is what has been identified as the Wildlife Corridor Area. 

A yes vote on Article III would allow a land swap.  The City would acquire the “Wheeler Park Connection Parcel” at no cost and it would be added to the  Wheeler Nature Park, which is located Southeast of the Dorset Street and Swift Street intersection.  Currently, the park consists of approximately 110 acres, which were acquired in 1992.  The park, which has been called Calkins Property or Dorset Park Natural Area at times, has officially been named Wheeler Nature Park, after Herman H. Wheeler who built the farmhouse on the property in 1903.  Currently, the National Gardening Association leases the house on the property.

As part of this ballot item, the voters will decide whether to authorize an exchange for conveying two parcels of land—6.91 acres and .34 acres—to Highlands Development Company.  These plots would be subtracted from Wheeler Nature Park.  The Highlands Development Company would pay a minimum of $10,000 for the creation of trails and/or the re-vegetation of the 21.27 acre “Connection Parcel.”  The City Council would convey a conservation easement on Wheeler Nature Park to a third party. 

Milizia, South Burlington Land Trust Secretary, said, “Three years ago we voted to protect the Wheeler Nature Park from the development” and the “majority of voters were thrilled that we were able to protect that.”  Her enthusiasm for the park is evident.  She says, “It is a favorite place of mine and people enjoy that park.” Milizia supports the passage of Article III and urges people who had supported conserving the Nature Park to seek answers to questions they may have about which land would be involved in the swap. 

Resident Beth Thorpe serves as a member of the South Burlington Natural Resources Committee.  She is concerned that condos will be developed on land previously designated conserved land.  She is also concerned that development could happen at the end of the “Wild Life Corridor” and worries about the precedent that this decision could set.  She respects all of the people voicing their opinions and wants to ensure that the facts are put out so that people can develop their own opinion. This loss could be “symbolic” she told The Other Paper. “Once you develop the property, it will be gone forever.  You have to hold the line somewhere.  If not now, where will you hold the line later?”

Sarah Dopp, president of South Burlington Land Trust, explains that because litigation has been going on for so many years, she is appreciative that both parties were willing come to a compromise.  Part of that good, she says, is getting the issue resolved.  She says that while all of the land is valuable and interesting, “the seven acres we would be giving up is in a corner of the park that is less interesting than the rest of it.”  The land was a farm put on the market at a time when the city could purchase it, and so the boundaries of the park were defined by previous use.  She says, “people should hear the facts and make their decisions.”

The SB Land Trust sponsored an evening November 28th at City Hall, at which officials explained the logistics of the proposal.  On December 4 at 1 p.m., there will be a walk to show people the sites where the land swap is going to take place. Milizia asks interested residents to meet at the parking lot at the corner of Dorset Street and Swift Street.  The walk will happen rain or shine.  There are also maps and satellite views on the city’s website.

SOURCE: Katie Lenox, Correspondent

The Other Paper welcomes its newest correspondent,
SB resident Katie Lenox.