Holton Hall at the Austine campus in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Holton Hall at the Austine campus in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Tuesday April 2, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Legislature is working on a bill that would allow the Vermont Center For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to sell some of its land without having to repay the state for past appropriations.

The Vermont General Assembly has worked with the Austine School, which is an educational program of the Vermont Center For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, almost going back to when the school was founded in 1904.

Now, while school officials say there are no current plans to sell land, the school has asked local legislators to craft a bill which would give officials authority to sell up to 15 acres.

Vermont Center For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing President Bert Carter said the organization does not have immediate plans to sell land, but wanted to have the option available.

"The way the legislation is written, and it goes all the way back to 1904, we would owe the state if we sell land," said Carter. "We asked our local legislators if that could be modified."

Most of the steep and wooded land on the campus cannot be developed, Carter said, but there are two parcels that could be sold to developers if the school decides to move ahead.

The two parcels, which are a combined eight acres, are along Interstate 91 and on the other side of the school's property, near Route 5 near the Guilford line.

The proposed legislation would allow the school to sell both, or only one, of the parcels.

Carter stressed that the school would only sell the land to an entity that would agree to develop the property in a way that was compatible with the school.

"We would use the money to make mortgage payments or make our overhead costs more reasonable," Carter said. "But it would have to be something we were comfortable with."

The state has given the Austine School more than $4 million over the past century, including a $50,000 appropriation in 1910 which allowed the Austine School to purchase the 200-acre farm where the campus is now located along Interstate 91.

In 1967 Legislators approved a $1.1 million grant which allowed the school to upgrade Vermont Hall.

Due to the large amount of state funding that has been given to the Austine School through the years, there was a requirement that the Legislature approve any land sale and also that the school repay the state up to $3 million following a land transaction.

In 2008 the Legislature relaxed those requirements slightly, allowing the school to go through with a sale without approval of the Legislature, but still asking that the school repay the state with any income gained from a real estate transaction.

The new bill, which has passed the Senate, would only require the school to repay the state when it sells property that was directly purchased with state money.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the school asked lawmakers to write the new bill to make it easier for them to move ahead with a land sale.

White said it's her understanding that Austine administrators will put the sale proceeds toward mortgage payments. She said the school's costs have risen, especially for residential programs for students with multiple disabilities.

"This really is an ability to help them financially," she said. "They don't need 175 acres. It isn't a piece that the students use. It wouldn't have any impact on the programs, the school, the trails they have or anything else."

Austine School has been serving students for more that 100 years and White said over that time the state has been supportive of the school's mission and growth.

"Because Austine is the state school for the deaf, the state has put a lot of money into renovations there," she said.

In general, White added, "it is felt that anytime the state puts money into a non-state entity, then if it should be sold or change purposes, that money should be refunded."

White also stressed that the legislation would only allow the school to sell up to 15 acres, and any future land deals would have to come back before the Legislature for approval.

White expects the bill to also clear the House during the current legislative session without any complications.

"If they wanted to sell another half an acre, they'd have to come back (to the legislature)," she said. "This is clearly for this one time."

Reformer reporter Mike Faher contributed to this story.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.