MONTPELIER — There are behind-the-scenes discussions about a development and open-space proposal for Sabin’s Pasture in the Capital City.
In his weekly report on Friday, City Manager Bill Fraser’s said he was working with various interested parties on reviving a proposal for some development on the 100-acre parcel on Barre Street.
“I am working with Trust for Public Land, the property owners, (Montpelier Development Corporation) and some other interested parties to look at viable options for moving a Sabin’s Pasture housing and open-space project forward,” Fraser wrote. “We will be scheduling an executive session briefing after the new council is seated in March.”
The on-again talks follow a decision by landowner the Aja/Zorzi family which owns the pasture, to halt previous negotiations three years ago after the city changed the zoning of the site, limiting development in parts of the pasture.
In May 2017, family member Doug Zorzi requested an increase in the depth of new Riverfront District zoning — the greatest density allowed for commercial and residential development — from 300 to 450 feet north of the center line of Barre Street, to allow for more development.
The council went a step further, approving a Trust for Public Land proposal from 2008 to set aside a 15-acre parcel at the southwest corner of the pasture — twice the area Zorzi requested — that would all be Riverfront District.
But in return for the increases in area and density, the council decided to change the zoning density of the rest of the pasture from Residential 6000 to Rural, which would lower the development potential — and value — of the remaining pastureland.
That, said Zorzi, was a deal breaker. He said it would prevent him making an arrangement to transfer the upper meadow open land to The Trust for Public Land.
At the time, Zorzi claimed that the land needed to be more valuable to be of interest to the TPL. However, a spokesman at the time said the TPL is a nonprofit and would gain nothing from the land being more valuable. Under the original proposal, the TPL would sell the open land back to the city which would use it to create a new city park to serve the city’s eastern neighborhoods.
For now, it appears Zorzi has changed his mind and re-entered talks on the pasture’s development but did not respond to a request for comment.
Speaking Monday, Fraser confirmed negotiations had resumed but said he was not able to provide specific details about some of the “other interested parties” involved.
“We’re working with Doug, but I don’t know what’s changed from his perspective,” Fraser said. “There’s not a lot of specifics. We are talking with the Trust for Public Land, talking with the landowners and looking at options.
“What I said in the weekly report is about all there is (to say). We’re hoping to have some more specifics at some point and when the new council is on and we’ll see if they still want to go ahead with anything. Right now, there are a lot of ideas being kicked around,” he added.
Fraser said renewed interest followed the recent sale of an 18-acre parcel of land owned by Vermont College of Fine Arts off Barre Street to Dr. Casey Ellison, a naturopath in Montpelier.
Ellison said it is hoped to start work on the bathhouse project in the fall of 2020 or spring of 2021. She said she hoped a second phase of the project would involve building about 40 units of affordable housing in the Riverfront District of the parcel, three to five years after the bathhouse.
“The sale of the VCFA property has helped stimulate conversations,” Fraser said. “I think it’s brought it back to the forefront, for the family, for the city, and TPL and others, and that maybe this is a time that something could happen.”
J.T. Horn is a senior project manager with the TPL, who works on conservation land acquisition projects.
“The Trust for Public Land and the city of Montpelier are both interested in Sabin’s Pasture and have been for more than a decade,” Horn said. “The vision for the property is longstanding, which is a majority of the property permanently conserved as a new city park and some portion of the property developed for additional housing that would benefit the community.
“We are still talking about that plan. The discussions with the landowner, the discussions with the city are still at a confidential stage. There’s no agreement. In fact, we have noting signed with the landowner, so any press... it’s premature and until we actually have an agreement with the landowner, we’re not in a position to really comment or have a media story,” he added.
Mayor Anne Watson said she welcomed renewed talks on Sabin’s Pasture and the opportunity to address new housing development in the city.
“There is a significant amount of pressure on our housing availability in Montpelier at all income levels,” Watson said. “Sabin’s Pasture is a prime location for housing, within walking and biking distance to downtown.
“I am looking forward to hearing about any opportunity that brings more housing development to Montpelier,” she added.
The Aja/Zorzi family purchased the former Sabin Dairy Farm on Barre Street in Montpelier in 1943 which remained an active family dairy operation until 1972.