SOUTH BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont is facing some opposition as it looks to sell 44 acres of prime real estate in South Burlington to earn revenue and allow for the construction of housing.
The university issued a request for proposals June 20. Developers interested in the land, near the intersection of Swift and Spear streets, need to respond by Aug. 18. The land contains fields and wooded areas about 1.5 miles south of UVM’s central campus.
UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera said the decision to sell is part of the university’s efforts to grow.
“It is imperative that The University of Vermont continue to create the capacity to make strategic investments that will allow the institution to improve quality and compete effectively in the higher education market,” he wrote in a statement. “To that end, the university must examine continuously its allocation of resources and make adjustments in favor of expenditures that most closely align with its core mission of educating students.”
Corredera added that development of the site could help with the “pressing need” for housing in Chittenden County.
The property for sale consists of two sections. The largest, the Edlund South Tract, is 33.9 acres, largely wooded and bordered by Spear Street and Potash Brook.
The 10-acre Martin Tract is mostly fields on the north side of Swift Street, near UVM’s Wheelock Farm. The college uses the farm for agricultural cropland and research; it also contains a 12-plot community garden.
The sale would not include the farm or garden. UVM has owned most of the property since the 1960s. These properties are not part of the East Woods natural area and are buffered from adjacent tracts by utilities and private property.
The Edlund South Tract is zoned for institutional and agricultural use, while the Martin Tract is zoned to allow for a maximum of four residential units per acre.
Paul Conner, South Burlington’s planning and zoning director, told Seven Days that the city has had initial conversations with UVM about a zoning change but that no formal request has been submitted. Attempts by VTDigger to reach Conner on Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.
Changes would have to go through the South Burlington Planning Commission, with final approval from the City Council.
South Burlington Land Trust President Sarah Dopp said she was shocked to hear about the request for proposals. She said her organization, which monitors and attempts to preserve open land, knew the property was vulnerable but did not expect any action by the university.
Dopp said she is most alarmed about the short time frame of the project, calling it “hasty.” The group is all-volunteer.
“For a land trust or conservation group to react to something like that, out of the blue, takes some time,” she said in an interview Friday.
Dopp said a UVM representative told the planning commission about a year and a half ago that there were no plans to sell or develop at that time.
She described the property’s ecological role as a “carbon sink,” due to the many acres of forest that border an urban area. The parcels are home to wetlands and the Potash Brook watershed, which raises concerns about runoff from impervious surfaces, Dopp said. It is also an important geological site, having been part of the borders of the Champlain Sea during the end of the last ice age.
Dopp, a UVM alumna, said she does not see a rationale for the sale, including the revenue.
“They kind of treat their lands as a land bank,” she said. “I never knew how quite literally they meant that until now.”
The land trust is working to tell government officials, residents and others of the university’s plans to sell. The organization is planning to give UVM a written plea for a conservation proposal.
After proposals are reviewed, a buyer would be selected in mid- to late September, along with the execution of a purchase and sale agreement in October, according to request for proposal documents.
Corredera said UVM foresees opposition to the sale.
“While we understand that there may be concerns about the development of the parcel, UVM has included among its selection criteria for developers and development projects: amenities, demonstrated history of stewardship and community interest, and positive benefits for UVM, the city of South Burlington, and the region. Further, there will be ample opportunity for input and discussion during the public process for any project that may move forward,” he said in his statement.
Dopp said the property has the potential for a trail network to connect to nearby East Woods. The property in between is also for sale, she said, which could be purchased to connect the two.
The university’s request for proposals allows for a range of possibilities. A deal could be contingent on housing and zoning permits, or the property could be sold immediately. Price, the proposed number of units, the amount of affordable housing and ratio of rental units to ownership units are all selection criteria.
The request for proposals does not require any housing to be reserved for the university, although it does leave the option open.
“UVM would consider providing the buyer/developer an opportunity to market the housing units to UVM faculty, staff and affiliates,” the document states.
Dopp said the land trust plans to fight any zoning changes if the sale goes through as planned.