Town Meeting Voters In Proctor To Weigh In On Controversial $1.5 Million Land Deal
Town Meeting voters in Proctor will weigh in Monday night on a controversial land sale. A Florida man is offering $1.5 million for 1,650 acres of town land that’s surrounded by national forest.
Hunters, snowmobilers, skiers and hikers worry the deal will threaten the access they’ve had for years. But Proctor officials say the deal could help pay down the cost of the town’s new water system.
The land at the heart of this story is located about 10 miles from Proctor in the town of Chittenden. But Proctor has owned the parcel since 1929.
Proctor Town Forest, as it's known, is hilly, remote and as Wayne Flewelling describes it: "This place is drop-dead gorgeous."
Flewelling is a volunteer with the Catamount Trail Association and lives in nearby Pittsford.
On a recent February morning the snow is crunchy and the air is crisp when he and Kate Wanner of the Trust For Public Land skied up a Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) trail to get to the property.
"You can come out here and get lost in nature," Flewelling said. "You’re not going to run into crowds on any given day, but a lot of people use it."
Flewelling knows this land well. He helps manage the roughly 1.5 mile section of the Catamount Trail that winds through Proctor's land.
"If this land is sold and potentially made off limits we'd have a heck of a time trying to find a contiguous pathway from the one end to the other," he said.
Besides the ski trails, VAST has several well-trafficked snowmobile routes here, and there’s a section of the Long Trail.
The Long Trail has a permanent easement so it’ll remain open to hikers no matter who owns this land, said Kate Wanner, of the Trust For Public Land.
“But the Catamount Trail Association and VAST have no such protection,” she said.
"If it were sold privately, it would be a disruptive inholding to the large block of what's currently public land." — Kate Wanner, Trust For Public Land
This 1,650 acres property, which is surrounded on three sides by the Green Mountain National Forest, is also a crucial corridor for wildlife, according to Wanner.
“So this is part of a 200,000 acre conserved forest, and one of the largest forest blocks in the state," she said. "If it were sold privately, it would be a disruptive inholding to the large block of what’s currently public land.”
The Town of Proctor bought the land to protect a spring they used for years as a water source, but after a new $6 million municipal water system went online in 2014, the town no longer needed to pipe in water from Chittenden.
Proctor Town Manager Stan Wilbur says timber harvests from the land have brought in about $300,000 over the last eight to 10 years, and foreseters have said it could bring in another $400,000 over the next 10 years.
The land is currently enrolled in the state's "Current Use" program, which qualifies it for a lower property tax rate. Last year, Proctor paid Chittenden $4,944 in property taxes.
Florida real estate developer John Gerlach offered Proctor $1.5 million for the land last fall. It's money town officials say could be invested and used to pay down the debt from the new water system.
Word of the potential sale spread quickly — as did questions and concerns like: Would Gerlach want to develop the land? Would he post it to keep out hunters or snowmobilers?
Proctor resident Dave Carmen thinks there are too many unknowns and that selling the land would be a mistake. He started a Facebook page called Save Proctor’s Town Forest which has more than 80 members.
“Once it becomes private, you’re at the mercy of whoever owns it,” he said.
Flewelling, the Catamount Traill Association volunteer, agrees. He said thinks public land needs to remain public, though he understands there's an economic reason behind Proctor's desire to sell the land.
"But it always makes me a little sad when I hear of lands being cut up and chopped up and privatized," he said. "There’s too much of that going on already.”
But John Gerlach, the prospective buyer, says almost two-thirds of Chittenden’s 47,488 acres are already controlled by the state and national forests.
"The only thing I really want to do is increase my acreage to make it more efficient for forestry, for basically environmental management." — John Gerlach, Florida Developer
And Gerlach says talking about the Proctor land as though it were public property is wrong: “It's not public. It's owned by the town of Proctor. It is private property.”
Even though lots of people use the property, Proctor taxpayers subsidize that activity, Gerlach said.
“Proctor could wake up and go, you know, there are liabilities with this — we’re cutting off the public; we can’t do this anymore,” he said.
Gerlach was born in Florida and develops real estate in Tampa Bay for Colliers International. He lived in Rutland Town for 8 years as a child and still owns property there. Two years ago he and his wife bought 577 acres overlooking the Chittenden Reservoir for $2.6 million — that property borders the Proctor land.
“The only thing I really want to do is increase my acreage to make it more efficient for forestry, for basically environmental management, to be honest with you,” Gerlach said.
He says he plans to log the land and denied rumors that he wants to use the springs to churn out bottled water, or do some other type of large-scale development.
“Yeah, that is so far removed from my position," he said. "Logistically, developing such remote land just doesn’t make much sense"
"It’s rocky and hard to get to," Gerlach added. "You have Act 250 and the regulations that you would have to go over, and the property itself is just not conducive to any type of development, in my opinion."
As far as maintaining public access if the sale goes through, Gerlach said he'd consult with VAST and the Catamount Trail Association: “You know, see what we what we can do or what we can’t do, you know, what meets my goals. But, you know ... it's important to meet theirs as well.”
But on the nearly 580 acres Gerlach currently owns in Chittenden there are “no trespassing” signs and while he says he’s worked with the nearby Mountain Top Inn to allow cross country skiing and hiking on some nearby trails, Gerlach does not allow hunters on his property, though it's not formally posted.
Proctor Select Board Chair Bruce Baccei said because of how much attention the proposed sale has gotten, town officials want to hear from voters.
Residents will be able to weigh in on a nonbinding floor vote Monday night during Town Meeting, which reads:
Shall the Town vote to authorize the Selectboard to list and otherwise solicit offers to purchase its watershed lands in Chittenden, Vermont for such value and on terms the Selectboard deem to be acceptable.
Wanner of the Trust for Public Land says there is another option if voters want to sell: it could be sold at fair market value to the federal government and become part of the Green Mountain National Forest.
“And it would stay public," Wanner said. "So it would not only benefit the coffers of the town of Proctor, but it would also benefit all Vermonters.”
While she says such a deal is a priority for the Green Mountain National Forest, she admits it could take several years to secure the federal conservation grants needed.
Back at the Town office in Proctor, Baccei says it'll be interesting to hear what voters have to say during Town Meeting Monday night. As to how he thinks the vote will go?
"I wouldn't dare put money on it yet," he said. "My guess is it'll be close."
"Even if town residents vote not to sell, the select board can still accept an offer," said Wilbur, the town manager. "But if the select board signs an agreement to sell, the voters will have 30 days to petition the town to have a vote on it."
So voters, he says, can have the final say on when and to whom the property is sold.