Selectboard member snags land intended for public right-of-way

Pownal still cut off from recreation area close to the Taconic Crest hiking trail because Selectboard member bought the land. File photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger
POWNAL — Selectboard members are expressing dismay at a fellow board member’s move to snag a parcel of land the board had been planning to buy, to preserve access to a town recreation area.
Without telling his fellow board members, Ronald Bisson bought the 40-acre meadowland parcel, at the end of Snake Hill Road. The land, which was under foreclosure, sits at the base of the Taconic Range and connects with the interstate Taconic Crest Hiking Trail.
The Selectboard for several years has been seeking a right-of-way through the parcel, so that hikers would have access to the trail, and for a logging road for the town. When the land was placed in foreclosure, the board started working with the Vermont Land Trust on a plan to purchase the land.
Bisson said last week that he and his brother, Alonzo Bisson, had bought the property from the Bank of Bennington for $120,000. He said other private offers also were on the table for the property.
Bisson acknowledged he hadn’t talked to the board about his decision, but said, “I was not the only one that could have bought it. If I didn’t buy that, somebody else would have.”
The town “could have done the same thing,” he said. The Selectboard had been talking about acquiring access for years but never took decisive action, Bisson said, adding, “I feel like the town fell asleep at the wheel.”
Donald Campbell, regional director for the Vermont Land Trust, said he had spoken with Selectboard Chair Nelson Brownell about grant funding to acquire the land, and possibly working with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to include an affordable housing project on the site.
Campbell said the land seemed well suited both for affordable housing and for expanding the use of recreational lands in town. He said he’d been considering coming to a board meeting to discuss his ideas.
But then, Campbell said, he was notified by the bank of a cash offer on the land, and shortly afterward learned that the offer had been accepted.
Brownell said he had hoped the town could put together a grant package that would have allowed the town to buy the property without spending town money. The bank had asked in early January whether the town wanted to purchase the land, he said. The bank said at the time that it would not be interested in allowing for a public right-of-way on the land because that would have a negative effect on the market value of the parcel.
Brownell said this week that he has asked Bisson to work with the town to create a public right of way across the land. “My hope is that Ron will work with us,” he said.
“It was very disappointing,” board member Jason Olansky said, to learn of the property’s sale.
“This was something the town was pursuing,” he said. The town’s recreation committee and other residents were involved.
Olansky said he also hopes something can be worked out, to realize the town’s long-held goal of providing public access to the recreation area.
Bisson said he and his brother would be willing to listen to proposals, but he is not inclined to work with the Land Trust. He said the restrictions placed on possible uses of the 700-acre mountainside property the town acquired with help from the organization were prohibitive.
Campbell said he thought grant funding for a purchase — especially in combination with an affordable housing project — stood a good chance of success, but that would take time to organize.
The Land Trust and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board had helped provide funding for the 2002 purchase by the town of hundreds of acres of mostly wooded property, formerly owned by the Pownal Tanning Co. The tanning factory had declared bankruptcy in the 1980s, and its factory building on the Hoosic River was declared a federal Superfund site.
Once the property was cleaned up, at the cost of $7 million, the town bought more than 700 acres of land formerly owned by the mill. There is land along the river the town hopes to link via a trail network to the mountain and to the Taconic Crest Trail. That pathway begins in New York state and extends south into Berkshire County, Mass.
But there was the problem of access. The Selectboard has been trying to solve the problem of access for years, since Hoosic River flooding washed out the section of Woods Road, just to the north of Snake Hill Road, that led to the recreation area.
“Our main point was to solve it there [at the parcel],” Brownell said. “If not, we have to go back to the drawing board.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Selectboard member snags land intended for public right-of-way.