City Council Approves Auclair Property Agreement

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Thursday September 27, 2018

The South Burlington City Council has taken steps toward long-term conservation of 375 acres owned by the Auclair family in the city’s southeast quadrant.

Three motions were made about the multi-party agreement; each passed 4-1, with Tom Chittenden opposed.

Participants in the agreement are the city government, Vermont Land Trust, Dirt Capital Partners, and Bread and Butter Farm. City Manager Kevin Dorn said the plan is to conserve three parcels of Auclair-owned land near the intersection of Hinesburg Road and Cheesefactory Road.

City officials said the deal will conserve important land, make it available for farming, and avoid development that would strain city services.

The city government’s participation is concentrated on the land north and west of the intersection. The city will pay $605,967 out of its Open Space Fund toward the purchase, leaving $61,981 in the fund.

City Councilor Meaghan Emery outlined the city’s participation: “A five-year term with a guaranteed option to conserve what is currently valued at approximately 35 percent of the total development potential on the property with no fewer than 40 acres on the lot at the time the option is exercised. The city will work with various partners to secure the entirety of the property with agricultural and perpetual conservation easements designed to maintain the forest block on the westerly side of the lot, provide a future public parking area for access, obtain and provide public trail access across Lot A to Lot B and across Lot B to the city-owned ‘Scott’ parcel, and maintain a vegetative buffer along Muddy Brook. Credit the city’s contribution toward any full conservation or purchase of the lot.”

The deal is expected to close Oct. 5.

The City’s Take

Last fall, when Bread and Butter Farm approached the city, looking to put together an agreement to buy and conserve the Auclair property, the city council held an executive session to discuss the idea.

After numerous meetings among all the parties, the city council voted 3-2 Oct. 25, 2017, to approve Meaghan Emery’s motion, seconded by Tim Barritt, to authorize the city manager to negotiate with Dirt Capital to buy the Auclair property and to authorize use of open space funds. Tom Chittenden and Pat Nowak voted no.

Bread and Butter Farm formally made an offer that the Auclair family accepted. Paul Conner, director of planning and zoning, said that the property could have drawn interest from other purchasers, including developers. Parcels A and C, as zoned, can have no more than three dwelling units each, but Parcel B — which is 117 acres, 57 of them in the neighborhood residential district — could have held up to 228 dwelling units if it was not conserved.

Conservation lowers the value of the land, which makes it affordable to a farming operation, provided it’s used only for agriculture.
Conner said keeping the land open benefits the city in a number of ways. If Parcel B were developed, it likely would have strained city services such as police, fire and sewer.

“From a strategic perspective, looking at the city’s future revenues vs. expenses, if developed, it would have been more expensive to maintain,” Conner said. “... This represents a financial return to the taxpayer over time.”

He said the money from the city’s Open Space Fund goes to the Auclair Trust (not Bread and Butter Farm) and Dirt Capital ultimately pays less for Parcel B. This larger down payment ultimately saves all parties money.

“Once the closing happens, the parties will be working to secure funding from various partners to complete the conservation of the property; Dirt Capital’s investment up front is a short-term action to allow these funds to be sought and applied to the full conservation,” Conner said. “That’s an important piece of this puzzle and why Dirt Capital is involved. They were able to provide the funds necessary in the short term to acquire the properties from the Auclair family, understanding that conservation funds from state and federal partners is typically programmed out some time into the future (sometimes several years). And so part of Dirt Capital’s mission is to be able to provide the short-term funds needed in a faster timeframe when a property goes up for sale.”

Other benefits of this agreement include local food access, an alignment with the city’s comprehensive plan and the mission statements of numerous committees, protecting wildlife habitat and, from a regional perspective, helping to delineate the urban/rural line.

Councilors vote

Not all councilors were completely sold on the deal. Chittenden voted no, and David Kaufman also expressed some reticence.

“To some extent, I agree with Tom,” Kaufman said. “I’m not sure if this is the best deal that could be out there, but on the flip side of that, there was a lot of hard negotiation. If the powers that be think this is where we should be and this is the best deal we’re going to get at the moment, I’m fine with it, with a little reluctance.”

Chittenden stressed that he favors conservation of the entire parcel, but could not support the methods being used to get there. Instead, he proposed the city buy the property outright (by borrowing from the city’s sewer fund and charging itself interest) and lease it to a farm, such as Bread and Butter, thereby protecting the city’s interests and allowing future generations the flexibility to create recreation spaces in those areas if they decided that is what’s needed.
Chittenden said he wants to protect future interests within the guidelines of the Open Space Fund as currently approved.

Helen Riehle, the city council chair, said the agreement is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to preserve 375 acres contiguous in Shelburne and Williston. Having a municipality put up the money for this type of investment creates a very strong case for other entities to do the same, she said.

“If we weren’t at the table, this probably wouldn’t happen,” Riehle said.

Bread and Butter Farm

Corie Pierce thought it was a long shot when she approached the city about the possibility of buying the Auclair property to preserve it.

She had often fantasized about conserving it. When the property went on the market, she knew time was of the essence. Pierce’s farm has limited funds for buying land, but thought a partnership with the city and other investors could make an agreement happen — and she was correct. Once the city came on board, the other pieces came together quickly, Pierce recalled.

Now, as the yearlong process inches toward closing, Pierce, who will oversee the management of all three parcels, envisions using additional land for grazing. The agreement will also allow her to think about expansion.

“We are a community farm and a huge goal is to care for the land and people,” Pierce said. Bread and Butter Farm employs four people full-time, one of whom lives on the farm, but the rest pay high rents elsewhere, she said.

“We are interested in affordable housing for our employees as well as citizens of South Burlington. ... We are open to the possibility of very limited development as part of the overall grand plan to pay down conservation, which could include affordable housing options for some of the farm employees,” Pierce said.

Pierce said she recognizes the complexities inherent in balancing development and open space interests. The fact that all of the partners came together in this way is incredible, in her eyes. “We can now make the land a beautiful, healthy place to cherish. I’m deeply appreciative and incredibly grateful to the city of South Burlington.”

Who’s Dirt Capital?

The partners in this four-way agreement are the City of South Burlington, Bread and Butter Farm, Dirt Capital Partners, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Of those, Dirt Capital Partners is likely the least familiar to the public.

According to its website, “Dirt Capital Partners invests in farmland in partnership with farmers throughout the northeastern United States, promoting sustainable farmers’ land access and security. Many talented farmers with profitable operations do not qualify for a conventional loan and/or do not have enough capital saved to make a large down payment. The primary alternative is leased land, which is often short-term, insecure and requires permission from landowners to erect basic farm infrastructure. Dirt Capital fills these gaps by facilitating farmland transitions, crafting long-term leases that allow businesses to expand securely, and providing defined pathways to ownership.”

Pierce was familiar with the work of Dirt Capital via its director of farmer services, Benneth Phelps, who helped her secure a $15,000 loan in 2010 for Bread and Butter Farm when she was affiliated with The Carrot Project, another mission-driven food systems organization that helps food and farm businesses with financial management throughout New England.

Decision transparency

Some have wondered about the transparency of the conservation deal.

Riehle said the council does as much business in the open as possible, but certain items, such as land deals and personnel matters, must be handled in executive session. Any decisions, however, are made in open session.

Several city committees were brought into executive session during the process in an effort at collaboration while also maintaining confidentiality.

Conner said voters established the Open Space Fund and set the guidelines for using the money. For example, residents recently voted to use a small part of the fund for the next 10 years for bike and pedestrian improvements.

“More generally,” Conner said, “the council has the authority to allocate those funds under the parameters approved by the voters.”


SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent