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Conservation Groups Unlikely To Outbid Developer For Burlington College Land

A federal investigation into a land deal made by Jane O'Meara Sanders while she was president of Burlington College is ongoing as of a month ago according to reporting this week by Seven Days.
Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
Officials at Burlington College are planning to sell off much of the land the college bought from the Catholic Diocese in 2010.

Burlington College is trying to sell off some land to get out of a bad financial situation, and they want to give conservation groups a chance to buy the land. Those groups say it's unlikely they'll be able to compete with the millions a local developer has agreed to pay for the property.

Weeks after coming on as interim president of the college, financial fix-it expert Mike Smith went public with the school’s new plan: to sell 25 of the college’s 32 acres of waterfront property in Burlington, some of the city’s last undeveloped waterfront land.

The college set up a deal with Burlington-area developer Eric Farrell to buy the land for $7 million, but in the interest of the environment (and the college’s finances), college officials built a 60-day provision into the deal that leaves the land open to be bought up for conservation within the first two months after it’s signed.

“It would start a 60-day clock that any conservation group can come in and buy this property for more than what the developer is willing to pay,” Smith said.

He said the provision was put forth to answer the concerns of environmentalists who raised concerns about developing the land.

But Vermont conservation organizations say the premise of outbidding Farrell’s $7 million offer is far-fetched, especially in the 60-day window the deal provides.

Plus, the groups said they wouldn’t be likely to move on the property unless they had support from the city.

“We don’t own or manage land long term, so it’s essential for us to work with a partner entity who would ultimately own and steward the property,” said Roger Krussman of the Trust for Public Land. In this case, that partner would likely be the city of Burlington.

Mayor Miro Weinberger’s statement on the land deal said he is interested in the future of the land, but didn’t show a strong commitment to conservation or development.

The City has a variety of interests with respect to the property - for example, an east-west public connection to the bike path is a goal that has been well-defined in multiple Parks, Recreation & Waterfront planning efforts and documents - and we will continue to be engaged in the development and conservation discussions about the land in the months and years ahead.

That left most conservation groups playing “wait and see.”

With the 60-day clock likely to start in early November, the groups can only wait so long.

Even if the city commits to conserving the land, conservation groups have to make choices that make their money go as far as possible, and Jon Binhammer at The Nature Conservancy has doubts that $7 million for 25 acres does that.

"With that money you could probably purchase about 7,000 acres of good, high-quality forest land," he said.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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