State auctions piece of circ land, retains 750 acres

‘We’ve never said it won’t be built’

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By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

The Vermont Agency of Transportation is selling off a small percentage of the land it acquired over a period of decades to build a circumferential highway through Chittenden County. But the agency plans to retain its remaining roughly 750 acres associated with the project, despite the highway’s apparent demise.

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced shortly after taking office in 2011 that his administration will not complete the long-planned “circ.” The four-mile stretch in Essex (Route 289) is the only one of three planned legs to be built. The state still controls 364 acres of right-of-way in Essex, Williston and Colchester for the highway, according to the Agency of Transportation. It also owns 393 acres of land outside the right-of-way — including four parcels in Essex, Jericho and Richmond — acquired as mitigation to offset the potential environmental impacts of the highway.

Opposition from environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency underpinned Shumlin’s decision to abandon the concept.

Sporadically, private property owners who sold easements to the state to make way for the highway have queried Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials about getting their property back, or being allowed to use it in some way, according to VTrans Right of Way Chief Robert White.

Colchester’s Ray Wells owns property near Severance Corners that is bisected by the circ right-of-way. Since Shumlin’s abandonment of the project, Wells has pushed the state to return circ land to its original owners, to sell it, or to use it for a public amenity, such as a bike path.

“The land is not available to anyone for any purpose,” Wells wrote in a letter to The Colchester Sun earlier this year. “Allowing prime, valuable land to go dormant is to the determent of all the people of Colchester.”

Among the circ-associated land the state owns in Essex is a 31-acre parcel at 87 Towers Road. The parcel is an exception compared to other circ land in that a house is built on it. The state subdivided 6 acres on which the house sits and attempted to auction it off on Monday.

“We didn’t want to become landlords,” VTrans Right-of-Way Acquisition Chief Bruce Melvin said of the two-bedroom home, which has been subject to vandalism and theft since VTrans acquired it in 2010.

The auction produced no bids, Melvin said, and the agency reduced the asking price to $200,000. The property is currently on the market.

Despite the Shumlin administration’s lack of interest in the circ, VTrans officials are not ready to close the book on the project. According to White, if the state abandons the idea with more finality, it could be on the hook to repay the federal government for federal money used to acquire the right-of-way.

“We’ve never said it won’t be built,” White said. “We’re just not working on it.”

Dick Mazza, the Colchester senator who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, prefers the state retain circ land and transition it to a different public use.

“When you go through all that right-of-way acquisition, you hate to give it up,” Mazza said. “It was going to be a highway, and I would still like to see it benefit the area.”

Persistent questions from property owners who sold easements for the road have prompted VTrans to initiate an inventory of and management plan for all of its circ land. The management plan will open the door to potential land sales, public improvements and/or private uses, White said.

“We always want to try to put land back on the tax rolls that don’t have mitigation or transportation use,” he said.

White estimates the management plan will be complete in 2016.