The former Elks Club property in Montpelier is very appealing, as I think anyone would agree from walking both its open and wooded areas. Development of the 138-acre property could be a model of imaginative urban planning and design for the 21st century, thanks to voters authorizing its purchase by city government.
However, if the property is to be used most effectively, I believe city officials must reconsider the public’s interest in the 95-acre Sabin’s Pasture property that abuts it.
Off and on for two decades, the city’s quest for more housing and land for outdoor recreation has focused on the privately owned Sabin’s property. But despite these efforts, differences between its owners and the city remain.
The Sabin’s property is at the eastern end of Barre Street, on the undeveloped uphill side, and continues eastward along the bike path to an electric power line corridor. At this point the Sabin’s and Elks properties abut, with the former Elks property continuing on along the bike path eastward.
Topographically the two properties are extensions of one another.
The Sabin’s property will eventually be developed, I think it is reasonable to expect. But neither the Sabin’s property nor the Elks property are likely to be developed as effectively as they could be unless the city gains a greater level of control over use of the Sabin’s property also. Were that to happen, I would suggest development and the economies of scale could be substantially more favorable, regarding at least:
1. The siting of buildings and other land uses. The terrain of both open and wooded land varies between the two properties, particularly the Elks property golf course compared with the Sabin’s property pastureland. But city goals for use of the two properties would appear to be the same. Therefore, land use planning for the two properties in unison would afford building siting and other land use decisions a wider range of possibilities, and thereby greater responsiveness to the land’s inherent suitability for different uses.
2. Infrastructure. Benefits of such planning would also apply to the layout of streets, water and sewer, electrical, and other utilities.
3. Off-site consequences. Demands on infrastructure in the rest of the city could be better anticipated from more predictable build-out and use projections for the two properties.
1. Woodland. Much of the woodland of the two properties is a contiguous area of the eastern end of the Sabin’s property and the western end of the Elks property. Planning for the two properties in unison could be most responsive to this area’s existing integrity.
2. Access. At present, vehicular access to the Elks property is restricted to one point, at its easternmost end, from a U.S. Route 2 turnoff just past the round-about. Street construction across the Sabin’s and Elks properties could provide shorter and more direct travel between much of the Elks property and the city’s central area.
But to realize these and other ideas, city government would almost certainly need greater control over the Sabin’s property than zoning alone can provide. Therefore, I believe the goal of ongoing city negotiations with the property’s owners should be acquisition of fee-simple or easement rights in the property, sufficient to facilitate the most effective use of both the Sabin’s and Elks properties.
If Montpelier voters believe the opportunities provided by public ownership of the Elks property are worth $3 million dollars, then a lesser probable cost to also obtain a necessary degree of control of the Sabin’s property should be justified by the still greater opportunities resulting.
Ben Huffman, a Montpelier resident, served on the city’s housing authority and planning commission; his career includes staffing federal urban redevelopment projects, Vermont Governor Deane Davis’s planning office, and the Vermont Legislative Counsel.
Editor’s note: This article was updated April 13 to clarify Huffman’s biography.
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