Wednesday May 8, 2013

VERNON -- Annette Roydon’s Pond Road property represents nearly two centuries of farming history in Vernon.

And with Roydon now planning to sell her 62-acre parcel, town officials want to ensure that the land will remain undeveloped and available for farming for another 200 years.

So the Vernon Selectboard has agreed to plan a special town meeting where voters will be asked to purchase development rights on that property. Preliminary estimates put that price at $100,000 or more, but some say it may be worth it to protect a longtime agricultural plot.

"I’m really concerned about somebody buying that and developing it," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell said.

Roydon, a former Selectboard member who still serves as Vernon’s emergency-management director, said she purchased the property about 14 or 15 years ago. It historically had been known as the Johnson farm and dates to 1814.

Roydon had lived in Vernon previously, and she moved back to town to live on farmland that she had admired for decades. But tragedy struck in December 2008, when fire badly damaged her historic farmhouse.

Roydon rebuilt a specially designed, environmentally friendly home on the same spot. However, she now expects to sell the property and live in a downsized home in Vernon while also residing part-time in Florida, where she has purchased a home.

The Pond Road property "will be on the market before the first of June," she said.


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Roydon also says she "absolutely" wants to try to ensure that the old farm remains open land.

"I believe in conservation, and I would not want it broken up," she said.

For that reason, Roydon approached Vernon’s recently revived Farmland Protection Committee. That committee’s charter is to be "proactive" when it comes to preserving agricultural property, Chairman Art Miller said.

"It’s pretty rare that farmland property actually comes up for sale," Miller said.

Committee members on Monday approached the Selectboard with a proposal: Offer about $100,000 for development rights on most of the Pond Road property, and ask voters to approve spending that amount from the town’s Farmland Protection Fund.

The $100,000 figure is based on the appraised value of Roydon’s undeveloped land, Miller said.

"Roughly half the appraised value is what the development rights go for," he said.

Miller noted that his committee only is making a recommendation; the actual offer will be determined by the town.

Also, acquiring the development rights may happen via a somewhat unusual arrangement. Roydon prefers to sell the property outright, leaving the next owner to accept or reject the town’s offer for development rights.

So there is some uncertainty built into the process, though Miller said he’s hopeful that a deal can be struck.

"We’re optimistic that whoever wants to purchase this land would be interested in preserving it," he said.

Further complicating matters is the fact that, while the town’s Farmland Protection Fund contained about $383,000 when the current fiscal year began, the Selectboard cannot simply dip into that cash.

"We can’t, as a Selectboard, spend any money that hasn’t been appropriated at town meeting," O’Donnell said. "So we have to have a special town meeting to appropriate these funds."

She expects to settle on a date for that meeting in the near future.

Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee, himself a farmer, said the proposed deal "will demand some more clarification and explanation in a public setting" so that voters understand the process.

He also emphasized that the town would not be purchasing the Pond Road land. Rather, Vernon would hold the development rights so that any future owners must preserve the property as farmland.

"The town, a number of years ago, decided that was an important planning tool," Dunklee said.

Aside from the merits of protecting agricultural acreage, Dunklee said there also are financial benefits for towns that work to preserve open land.

"People commonly think, the more houses we have, the more property taxes and revenue the town’s going to bring in. But that disregards the services that those people require. Open land doesn’t require a whole lot of services," Dunklee said. "So it’s cost-effective from a longer-term standpoint to have a good mix of open land and some commercial and some residential."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.