PROCTOR — The Select Board is taking steps to ask voters how they feel about selling the 1,600-acre Chittenden Watershed.
At the Nov. 25 regular Select Board meeting, after much discussion, the board decided to direct Town Manager Stan Wilbur and Town Attorney Alan George to draft a ballot article asking voters whether they want to sell the property. The ballot article will be reviewed by the board Dec. 9 at its regular meeting.
At 4:30 p.m. today, at a special meeting scheduled for the Proctor Free Library Community Room, the board is scheduled to hear from three investment firms about what proceeds from the sale might generate.
Several weeks ago, the board heard from John Gerlach, a Florida resident who grew up in this area and owns land in Chittenden adjacent to the watershed, about his desire to buy the property for $1.5 million cash. News about the offer sparked a string of discussions in which the board raised questions about the merits of selling the property, plus other offers to consider, namely from the Green Mountain National Forest.
As the name suggests, the Chittenden Watershed is in the town of Chittenden. It was purchased by Proctor more than 100 years ago to safeguard what was then the town’s water supply. The town no longer uses it for water, but it’s open to the public and the town sees some money from logging contracts. A big question for the board has been, would it make more money from investing the proceeds of a sale, or by continuing with the logging?
Attorney William Meub, who represents Gerlach and has been speaking for him at meetings, said his client wants some idea of what direction the board is headed so he can decide whether to withdraw the offer. He said Gerlach is prepared to put down a sum of nonrefundable money to enter into good-faith negotiations.
Meub said he doesn’t mean to pressure the board, but his client would like some idea of where this is headed.
“I think this is a little different than a house sale. We weren’t even considering selling the property when Mr. Gerlach came to us,” said Selectman Tom Hogan. “We didn’t put it up for sale, he came to us.”
Selectman Ben Curtis agreed, saying there’s a great number of variables the board has to consider, and he took issue with being told there was no pressure only to then be told the offer is off the table after a certain time.
One board member was prepared to vote that evening. Selectwoman Carrie Dougherty said the fact the town might need a backup water supply someday left her feeling hesitant about a sale.
“I don’t see a reason to sell when we weren’t looking to sell,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable selling it, and I haven’t heard anything that’s changed my mind yet.”
Prior to the board’s main discussion, George Todd, president of the Chittenden Dammers snowmobile club, said his group has concerns about trail access.
“I don’t think the club is here to say whether you should or shouldn’t sell it, that’s up to you,” he said.
The club’s concern is that one of its major trails goes through there, and if a private landowner were to cut off access, it might impact the club’s standing with the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST).
“We had another big private landowner sale in Chittenden a few years ago,” he said. “The private landowner made a lot of promises that were not kept, so we do have some concerns.”
A few other people reiterated concerns they’ve raised in the past, in essence saying the watershed is a valuable natural resource for the town and that private ownership would jeopardize that.