After decades of conservation efforts, East Montpelier is considering refocusing its land use goals to support more affordable housing. The town is kicking off the conversation by holding a Land Conservation Summit.
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East Montpelier has a lot of single-family houses on predominantly large lots. The town is also home to many working farms. Some of those farms have permanent conservation easements. And a lot of the farmland is enrolled in Vermont’s Current Use program. That’s a property tax program designed to keep agricultural and forest land in production, and slow development of the working landscape.
Bruce Johnson is East Montpelier’s Town and Zoning Administrator. He says about 20 percent of the property in East Montpelier is conservation land, and nearly half is in Current Use.
"We're sitting at about 21,000 acres for the town," Johnson says. "And we've got a little over 4,000 conserved – permanently conserved. And we've got some 9,500 to 9,600 acres in Current Use."
East Montpelier also has a growing trail system and nearly 100 acres of town forest. And, Johnson says, there are other tracts of public land around town as well.
"U-32 has over 160 acres," he says. "The state has a wetlands mitigation project that's about 80 acres. Wrightsville Reservoir takes up some on the west side of town. And then the town has some lands that were given to us."
What East Montpelier doesn’t have is many options when it comes to lower-cost housing. Johnson says there is one mobile home park and one apartment building in town, and maybe some single family homes that have been split into apartments. But that’s about it.
"East Montpelier isn’t known for affordable housing and we recognize that that may be a failing of ours," he says. "We’d like to see development that may be skewed toward the younger crowd that would bring children to the school. We have a big school. We could use some kids in it."
Johnson says East Montpelier's land conservation efforts have been such a success that the town might be in a good position to shift focus.
"The real key is that we've had a conservation program that's just worked wonders for 25 years at preserving ag land, perhaps providing opportunities for trails," Johnson says. "We have a great trail system in town now. But it hasn’t looked at all at housing."
To start the conversation, the select board is holding a Land Conservation Summit Monday night. Johnson says they're hoping to hear some new ideas.
"The real concern here is, it's not so much that we're conserving property – that is still considered a public good," he says. "It's that we may not be looking at other needs and at times there may be a higher purpose to some strips of land. And we're just not looking at that. And maybe we need to."
Residents are encouraged to attend the summit. And the town has invited representatives from conservation groups, like Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy. Housing groups are invited as well. The town has also requested someone from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board attend. That's the state office that helps fund both land conservation and affordable housing projects.
Mediator Cindy Cook will be facilitating Monday's summit. She says she's looking forward to a lively discussion.
"I love having rich conversations with as broad a range of perspectives as possible," she says. That's democracy at its best."
Cook says she'll be keeping close track of the terminology. She says the chairman of the select board specifically asked that Monday's conversation doesn't emphasize the term "affordable housing," which he fears may conjure up preconceived notions.
"What he is looking to do is have a conversation about affordable land for housing, rather than affordable housing," she explains.
East Montpelier may be paving the way for similar conversations in other towns that have had particularly successful land conservation efforts. Johnson says he knows of at least a few towns that are paying attention to what's going on in East Montpelier. And, he says, getting together landowners, conservation groups, housing organizations and town committee members seems like a good place to start.
"Having all the players, or a lot of the players, in the same room discussing the same topic – it can’t hurt," says Johnson. "We’ll see how it goes."
Monday's summit is set to start at 7 p.m., at East Montpelier's new fire station.