A message from Stowe Land Trust's Executive Director:
Stowe Land Trust deeply values its relationships with owners of conserved land. We view farmers, forestland owners, and the Town of Stowe as respected partners in our land conservation efforts, and we appreciate their stewardship of the farms, forests, waters and trails that we all benefit from and enjoy. We support the appropriate use of local zoning tools, like Stowe's Agricultural Planned Residential Development and Transfer of Development Rights Programs that promote clustered development and conservation of open space and productive agricultural lands. In addition, Stowe Land Trust takes seriously our obligation to maintain the integrity of the conservation interests we have been entrusted to uphold.
The following story was published in the Stowe Reporter on February 9, 2023. To view Stowe Land Trust's Interested Party Letter that was submitted as part of the referenced Stowe Development Review Board hearings, click here. The article incorrectly states that Stowe Land Trust "is not concerned with what Percy does with the Bouchard farmland." All of Landmark Meadow and Bouchard Farm's farmland is protected with permanent conservation easements held by Stowe Land Trust that restrict the development of these lands.
By Aaron Calvin. Published by the Stowe Reporter, February 9, 2023. Original link with photos here.
Paul Percy, patriarch of the largest of Stowe’s few remaining farming operations, has found himself at odds with Stowe Land Trust over a complex development rights question regarding the density allocation on the former Bouchard farmland.
Over the course of several meetings beginning last October, the Stowe Development Review Board heard from Percy as well as the land trust and abutting neighbors regarding whether the farmer has full latitude to change how the land can be developed under the area’s current zoning.
Percy is looking to increase the number of units that can be built on the Bouchard farm property by consolidating the density rights from the 15-acre parcel of land known as Landmark Meadow with the density rights of the Bouchard parcel, a roughly 281-acre collection of lots on the far side of the river.
The Bouchard farm is fronted by Luce Hill Road, with the Stonybrook condominium complex on one side and the farm’s hay and cornfields, barns and farmhouse — and the Percy corn maze — on the other side framed by a sweeping view toward Mt. Mansfield. The Landmark Meadow sits on the other side of West Branch of the Little River across from the Mountain Road recreation path access.
The area is zoned as an agriculture-planned residential development, which allows for the clustered development of residential units offset by the conservation of agriculture lands.
The consolidation, if allowed, would increase the number of residential units allowed to be built in designated sections of that tract of land.
The trust said it’s not concerned with what Percy does with the Bouchard farmland, but instead is asserting its ownership of the development rights they claim they retained when they sold Percy the land.
The Bouchard Farm totals 266 acres, but only 180 acres are protected from development under a conservation easement. Landmark Meadow is just under 16.1 acres, all of which are protected from development.
In a letter submitted to the development review board requesting interested party consideration in the case, Stowe Land Trust executive director Kristen Sharpless argued that the conservation easement placed upon the Landmark Meadow section of land and the contract signed with Percy at the time of the sale kept the density rights under the land trust’s ownership.
Sharpless advised that when the land was appraised at the time of conservation, the transferable property rights were valued as well, and the 16 units of transferable density were valued at $400,000 collectively.
The land trust’s lawyers at Monaghan Safar Ducham have advised them the development rights it retained in the sale to Percy included the density allocation.
“(Stowe Land Trust) retained all ‘development rights’ on the Protected Property, and therefore, these rights are not Mr. Percy’s to convey,” Sharpless wrote. “SLT has been advised that there is a very strong likelihood that a court interpreting the Easement on Landmark Meadow would determine that the rights that SLT retained include the right to use the Protected Property for density allocations.”
Sharpless argued that how the town ultimately decides on the density allocation ownership will “set a precedent for how density allocation rights are considered in the context of other acquisitions of development rights via conservation easements in Stowe.”
This could affect land trust conservation projects throughout town that were purchased with the help of town funds, including Nichols Field and the recently purchased Ricketson Farm.
Percy has remained firm in his belief that the density rights are his to reallocate.
“If they don’t want you using them (density) units, they should’ve put it in the deed,” he said. “If they wanted them units, they could’ve bought them units.”
The development review board has yet to issue a formal written decision on the matter, but at the last meeting in January, verbally signaled that they would not be deciding on the issue of who owns the development rights and would not be applying the “Stowe Club Test” — decide whether Percy’s application is an appropriate request to amend a previously issued permit — after consulting town lawyers.
If the board decides not to rule on key aspects of conflicting claims between Percy and Stowe Land Trust, the next stop could be the Vermont Environmental Court.
As Percy and the Stowe Land Trust lock horns over ownership of density right ownership, abutters to the former Bouchard farm, particularly residents at the nearby Covered Bridge condominiums turned out to express their concern that Percy’s attempt to consolidate density on the property signaled his desire to develop the land or sell to someone with plans to do so.
A total of 10 condo residents spoke at the meeting where Percy’s application was discussed in November, raising concerns about how development would affect the use of the road into their development, which they pay to maintain, and environmental issues.
The Covered Bridge Condominium Association has also retained the services of the legal team at Stackpole & French. Lawyers Will Grigas and Britney Aube sent a letter to the development review board calling Percy’s application itself insufficient, argued that Percy should be forced to disclose subsequent development plans and claimed that shifting the density rights in this way did not fit the purpose of the zoning district.
The land has been zoned to allow for partial residential development for decades, so Percy, one of the few parties who has not publicly lawyered up at this point in the discussion, could have sought to do so at any time since he took ownership of the Bouchard property.
So far, Percy has not made his plans known.