Conservation group to buy Montpelier land

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(Host) A land conservation group has reached agreement to buy nearly 100 acres of scarce open land in Montpelier.

The Trust for Public Land will preserve the bulk of the property, known as Sabin’s Pasture, and use some of it for housing.

But it hasn’t been easy to reach that settlement.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, maintaining the Vermont ethic of sharing the land can be challenging.

(Sneyd) Sabin’s Pasture is largely an open field that creeps up a hillside on the eastern edge of Montpelier, overlooking the Winooski River.

It’s a favorite spot for walking, skiing and sledding by capital city residents, who view it almost as a city park even though it’s been privately owned for years.

So when plans were unveiled almost six years ago for a housing development on the land, the outcry was loud and sustained.

Mayor Mary Hooper says that’s because Sabin’s Pasture represents for her city the solution to two competing needs.

(Hooper) "When we think about the needs of the community, we see a real strong interest in preserving and using natural areas. Folks in the community enjoy that. But we also have a need for more housing and more affordable housing. This parcel just seems to fit the bill all the way around."

(Sneyd) The group buying the land hopes to fulfill both of those needs. Housing is planned along a city street at the edge of the property and the land on the hill above will be preserved.

Montpelier is not alone in treasuring a piece of private property for its public uses.

Elise Annes is a vice president of the Vermont Land Trust, who has helped make many projects happen.

She says Vermont clings to what she calls a "culture of community" in which private landowners largely leave their property open to hunting, hiking, skiing and sledding as long as the public is respectful.

(Annes) "I think the question is, Can we keep the land open and use it and not abuse it so that there’s a compact between people who use private land for recreation and the landowner, that they both care for the land, sort of a common land ethic?’ And then I don’t think there would be as much of an issue."

(Sneyd) The threat of losing such open spaces in heavily developed communities like Montpelier can threaten what people see as their way of life.

Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont says the debates over the future can be heartfelt. But he says the discussions are vitally important to maintaining Vermont’s sense of place.

(Bruhn) "I think there’s just a lot of passion and commitment to these places. They help to build a real sense of community. And I don’t know whether that exists anywhere else in the U.S. But it certainly exists all over Vermont."

(Sneyd) The passion is likely to remain in Montpelier in coming weeks as plans for Sabin’s Pasture get a closer look.

The City Council gets its first briefing next week.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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