Board member buys land eyed by town

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POWNAL — Select Board members say they were dismayed recently when one of their colleagues purchased land in foreclosure that the board had pursued to secure access to a mountainside recreation area the town owns.

Without consulting fellow board members, Ronald Bisson purchased the 40-acre meadowland parcel at the end of Snake Hill Road, which sits at the base of the Taconic Range and connects with the interstate Taconic Crest Hiking Trail.

The board had for several years sought a right-of-way through the parcel to provide access for hikers and a logging road for the town, and most recently began working with the Vermont Land Trust in an attempt to purchase the land after the foreclosure.

Bisson said last week that he and his brother, Alonzo Bisson, had purchased the property for $120,000 from the Bank of Bennington, adding that other private offers also were on the table for the property.

He acknowledged he didn't discuss the purchase with the rest of the board 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," and the Select Board had talked 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 board Chairman Nelson Brownell about grant funding to acquire the land, possibly working with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to include an affordable housing project at the site.

Campbell said the land seems well suited for the creation of both affordable housing and for expanding the use of recreational lands in town, and he was considering coming to a board meeting to discuss those ideas.

But Campbell said he was notified recently by the bank of a cash offer and shortly afterward learned that it had been accepted.

Brownell said he hoped the town could put together a grant package that would allow the town the buy the property without expending town funds. He said the bank had asked in early January if the town wanted to purchase the land and at the same time indicated it didn't want to allow a right-of-way easement because of possible negative effects on sale value for the entire parcel.

Brownell said this week he that has asked Bisson to consider helping the town provide access across the parcel.

"My hope is that Ron will work with us," he said.

"It was very disappointing," said board member Jason Olansky about learning that the property had been sold.

"This was something the town was pursuing," he said, and the effort involved a town recreation committee and other residents.

But Olansky said he still hopes something can be worked with the new owners that will allow Pownal to realize the long-held goal of accessing the recreation area.

Bisson said he and his brother would be willing to listen to proposals, but he is not inclined to deal with the Land Trust because of the type of use restrictions the organization might place on the land. He believes the restrictions placed on the 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 helped provide funding when the town acquired hundreds of acres of mostly wooded former Pownal Tanning Co. land in 2002. The North Pownal business entered bankruptcy during the 1980s, and its factory site on the Hoosic River was declared a federal Superfund site, which eventually was cleaned up in a $7 million project that included razing the former mill off Route 346.

After that process, the town acquired more than 700 acres of land the mill ownership had acquired over the years, including wooded lands and a former reservoir site that once supplied the mill and the village with water.

The Select Board has been searching for secure access to the property since Hoosic River flooding several years ago washed out a section of Woods Road, just to the north of Snake Hill Road.

The recreation area includes a riverside parcel, which the town hopes to link via a trail network to the mountainside land and to the Taconic Crest Trail, which begins in New York state and extends south into Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

"Our main point was to solve it there [at the parcel]," Brownell said. "If not, we have to go back to the drawing board."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.




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