By Lee J. Kahrs/The Reporter
PROCTOR — The first of December has come and gone, but an offer to buy the 1,600-acre Chittenden watershed is still in play.
Despite extending the deadline to accept his $1.5 million offer to buy the parcel owned by the town of Proctor, former Rutland-area resident John Gerlach, who now lives in Florida, said he would stand by the offer and await the Select Board’s decision.
“I reviewed the last board meeting and in my opinion, they appear to be moving forward,” Gerlach said on Monday, Dec. 2. “I’m inclined to leave my offer on the table, but what’s important is that they are doing their due diligence. As long as they’re moving forward in earnest, my offer stands.”
That offer, however, is running into resistance from some outdoor enthusiasts who use the vast system of public trails that honeycomb the 1,600 acres in question. Those public trails include sections of the VAST network for snowmobilers, the Catamount Trail cross country ski routes and numerous trails for hiking.
Proctor Town Manager Stan Wilbur said the Green Mountain Club currently has a right-of-way through the land for hikers, as the parcel is near the Long Trail. The club also has right of first refusal on 50 acres of the watershed land, which is not part of the parcel in question.
The Chittenden Dammers, a VAST snowmobile club, also has a right-of-way permit to cross the land. The Catamount Trail, a cross-country ski trail from Massachusetts to Canada, also runs through the parcel.
The Green Mountain Club has also expressed interest in buying the land through the Trust for Public Land.
Kate Wanner, project manager for Vermont’s chapter of the national Trust for Public Land, said the U.S. Forest Service and its public partners are interested in buying the land and keeping the trails accessible to the public.
“We do want the public, and Proctor residents, to know that there is a win-win scenario here, where we can keep the land open to public use and the town can still benefit from the sale,” Wanner said.
Wanner said she couldn’t guarantee at this time what the price of the land would be, but it would be determined by an independent appraisal and would be “at a competitive price.” She said that any sale of lands through the Trust, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, would take a couple of years to develop but that this parcel would be “a highest priority” in fiscal year 2022.
The Catamount Trails Association is also well aware of the potential land sale and is rallying its members to pay attention.
Executive Director Matt Williams said in a phone interview Wednesday that the sale to a private owner and possible discontinued use of the Catamount Trail would challenge his organization.
“This is something we’ve been paying attention to,” he said. “We’re concerned about it because it’s a critical connection for the Catamount Trail and for VAST and the Long Trail. Given the nature of the trail, a re-route would be very difficult and challenging.”
Williams said he is aware of the Green Mountain Club’s interest in the parcel and said that scenario would be ideal.
“Certainly if the national forest bought it, it would be advantageous and a good solution from our standpoint,” he said. “Our concern is that [the land] is serving as a tremendous public resource. We’re certainly doing our best to get the word out.”
Although the parcel lies within the town of Chittenden, it is owned by the town of Proctor. According to a handwritten deed that Wilbur found, the land was purchased by Proctor in August 1929 from the Champlain Realty Company.
“But we don’t know how,” Wilbur said. “All we have is the deed.”
Proctor’s drinking water ran through the watershed until 2014, when the town discontinued using the Chittenden water treatment plant. The town has also used the watershed parcel for timber harvesting, earning roughly $250,000 from timber sales every decade or so, according to the town’s forestry management plan.
Proctor pays the town of Chittenden $4,944 in annual taxes under the state’s Current Use program.
Gerlach made the offer on the parcel with an original deadline of Nov. 15 for the town to respond. The town asked for more time and the Dec. 1 date was offered.
Gerlach’s attorney William Meub has said his client recently bought 574 acres of land adjacent to the watershed parcel. Meub has also stated that Gerlach has no plans to develop the land.
Gerlach is a Florida-based real estate professional specializing in investment properties serving capital markets. But he is also a native of Pittsford, and grew up on a farm near the border of Pittsford and Rutland Town, he said.
The Proctor Select Board is now in the process of scheduling meetings with Edward Jones financial services, Peoples United Bank and the Vermont Community Foundation. Based on those meetings, the Select Board will weigh what kind of financial guidance they want should they proceed with the deal. Wilbur said the two firms and the nonprofit each submitted a proposal outlining their services and costs for providing investment management.
Wilbur said the board will consider, for instance, the interest at 4% on $1.5 million, which comes to roughly $60,000 a year, versus the revenue from timber sales over the years.
“Which is the better deal?” Wilbur asked. “That’s the question the board is trying to get past. Their position is, what’s best for the town, looking at it from a financial standpoint.”
The Proctor Select Board voted at its Nov. 25 meeting to have Wilbur prepare a warning for a public vote and article language for approval at the Dec. 9 meeting. He said the article before the public would most likely just be a simple question of whether the voters of Proctor should allow the Select Board to sell the Chittenden watershed property.
“If they vote ‘no,’ it would close the issue,” he said.