Land-Swap Proposal Goes to the Polls

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Thursday October 13, 2011

The City Council approved a ballot measure Monday asking South Burlington voters whether a proposed land-swap should be included as part of an in-the-works settlement package to conclude nearly a decade of litigation related to housing developments and wildlife corridors surrounding the Vermont National Country Club.

The proposal, between the City of South Burlington and Highlands Development, LLC— a corporation involved in the contentious J.A. McDonald golf course development, now referred to as J.A.M. Golf—would authorize the Council to grant 7.25 acres of city-owned Wheeler Nature Park to the developer in exchange for 21.27 acres identified as a wildlife corridor.

For the city, Wheeler Nature Park would officially absorb the acquired land, which would in turn be entrusted to a third-party land-trust as part of a conservation easement. The developer would also grant $10,000 to the City for revegetation and trail construction on the land.

Highlands Development/J.A McDonald would be allowed a total of 34 housing units on a combined 7.25 protected acres ceded by South Burlington, in buildings ranging from one to four units each. The Council would work “in good faith” to bypass existing zoning restrictions on development for the 7.25 acres.

Addressing the City Council on Monday night, Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning for South Burlington, said the land-swap allows “all parties to get some of what they’re looking for, if not the majority of what they’re looking for.” South Burlington has been involved in litigation with the developer since 2003, when the Development Review Board rejected portions of an amended master plan for the 400-acre-plus build-out that includes residential neighborhoods and the Vermont National Country Club golf course along Dorset Street.

The developer appealed the case in the Environmental Court, which upheld the DRB’s decision, and subsequently to the state Supreme Court, which reversed some of the Environmental Court’s decision and remanded the case back to the lower court for conclusion in 2008.

The land-swap is part of a second attempt between South Burlington and Highlands Development/J.A McDonald to reach a settlement. Details of the settlement—the land-swap, if approved by voters, represents only a portion of what the Council would bring to the table—remain undisclosed, although Councilors on Monday said it involves an allowance for 86 homes and additional property. Excepting the 34 homes allowable on the 7.25 acres in the parks district, the homes would be built on parcels that currently allow development.

“The terms of the settlement have already been outlined,” said City Manager Sandy Miller. “It’s not really the case that we’ll be negotiating after the vote,” assuming voters pass the ballot measure, he said.

The 7.25 acres in question lie in two pieces at the southwest corner of Wheeler Nature Park, located near Park Road off of Dorset Street, with the smaller, 0.34 parcel sited across Dorset Street. Conner, citing information from a two-years-in-the-making management plan from the city’s Natural Resources Committee (NRC), said the acreage is the least ecologically valuable in the park. The 21.27 acres that the city stands to gain—a north-south swath running from Wheeler toward Shelburne Pond—was identified as a wildlife corridor by consultants hired in a 2004-2005 for a broader analysis of the Southeast Quadrant. 

If voters approve the ballot measure and a settlement is reached, the City would retain ownership of the land but cede Wheeler’s consolidated 119 acres to a land-trust for “a second layer” of protection. The City did not name an organization.

“I think this easement is a really important part of this plan,” said Laurel Williams, a member of the city’s NRC. “We want to make sure that this is the last time we do something like this [land-swap],” she said.

Other audience members sought assurances that the $10,000 revegetation and trails funds would remain earmarked for the park. While the City, rather than the land-trust, would retain the funding, said Miller, the Council will need to allocate the money. 

Both the City and the developer have requested that the Environmental Court postpone proceedings on the J.A.M. Golf case while they work toward a settlement. Asked what would happen if voters rejected authorizing the City Council to include the land-swap in any settlement, Miller said, “I believe we’d be back in court.”

Voters can cast ballots at city polling stations on December 6 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Also included on the ballot are two amendments to the City Charter (available at http://www.sburl.com). The ballot measures will be posted in City Hall beginning October 26. A map of the proposed land-swap parcels may be available if approved by the Board of Civil Authority on October 25.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent