Potential site for Southern Vermont Natural History Museum identified


WILMINGTON — Two properties are being eyed for the possible relocation of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum.

But only one has been revealed — 85 W. Main St.

"It's not a definite for us either," said Ed Metcalfe, museum executive director. "We're in negotiation with that property and there's a potential for another property in town which we're looking at."

The surprise announcement came Wednesday when Zoning Administrator Craig Ohlson approached the Select Board about making revisions to zoning ordinances before a hearing on July 6 where the documents could be readopted.

"The district line between the village district and the residential district dissects the piece of property and that line is 600 feet up on the property from Route 9. I guess, with my discussions with the museum, they want to perhaps move their facility beyond that point. And in our zoning ordinance in the village district, museums fall under entertainment and cultural facility," Ohlson said. "In residential, entertainment and cultural facilities are not listed. Educational are listed."

Being in the process of making several other edits to the ordinances, Ohlson said the Select Board could either include entertainment and cultural facilities in the list of conditional uses within the residential district or extend the village district line further up the property.

According to Ohlson, the museum did not necessarily fit the description for an educational facility as that involved education of "public and parochial students." Education is included in the private nonprofit's mission statement but Metcalfe agreed with Ohlson's reading of the ordinance.

Nicki Steel said changing the boundary would not put the town at risk for being accused of "spot zoning." The phrase is used to describe situations in which a piece of property within a larger zoned area is rezoned and it conflicts with the town's current zoning regulations.

Not speaking for the museum, Steel said she was supportive of the museum staying in Wilmington and thought it made more sense to shift the line. She formerly served on the town's Development Review Board and is now a volunteer at the museum. She said she researched the issue at plannersweb.com.

"If you wait until the public hearing, you get into the loop sometimes that I know the Select Board doesn't want to get into. If you make a major change at the hearing, you will then have to have another hearing," Steel said. "The museum doesn't know for sure it's going to go in there. You've got a good piece of land there. It's really the only big piece of land near the village center that could be developed for something else."

The board ultimately voted to move the 51.9-acre property into the village district. The revision will now be included in the zoning document up for review at the upcoming hearing.

"Extending the line seems best," said Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald

Metcalfe told the Reformer the museum is not sharing the other location right now, but he did say it was not going to be located downtown.

"We're trying to figure out what to do," he said in an interview Thursday. "We're in negotiations right now. I don't know where it's going to go. We're basically going to hear about this other piece in a week or so. We'll see if that comes into play as being a viable option."

Price will be a factor. Metcalf envisions the museum getting an option to purchase the property before starting a vigorous fundraising campaign. Information sessions held earlier in the year began to spread the word of the museum's plans to expand.

"If we're trying to build a dream around a place, we need a place. It's hard to picture it without knowing where it's going to be," said Metcalfe.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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