To make way for the long-awaited Crescent Connector road, the village could soon force two unwilling commercial property owners to sell parts of their land.
The village trustees authorized staff last week to begin a process known as the necessity of public good, in which the municipality can commandeer parts of property owner’s land if it can prove why it’s in the public’s best interest. Forty days from May 14, the trustees will visit the site and conduct a hearing to judge the necessity of the project and whether the inconvenience placed on property owners warrants changing the plans.
Discussion at last week’s meeting suggested the trustees believe the Connector project will meet the standards spelled out in state law.
“If this project were not completed, there would be significant funds, both federal and state, that the village would be on the hook for,” said village president Andrew Brown. “So in terms of necessity, I know I personally see this as one in which we need to continue to see this forward, and we can’t continue to have further delays.”
The Connector is a bypass road that will connect Park and Maple streets and, officials hope, significantly reduce traffic at the Five Corners. The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission selected the road as one of the area’s core alternative projects to be funded with money previously earmarked for the circumferential highway.
After repeated delays, the Connector appears to be finally on track, with phase one of the project – work on railroad crossings – expected to take place this construction season, and phase two scheduled for next summer.
But the village still needed to secure 18 easements prior to fully constructing the road. Fourteen of those are temporary, allowing workers to stand on the property owner’s land during the construction process, and will expire once the road is finished. The remaining four will create a permanent right-of-way, meaning the road will encroach onto the property owner’s land.
Because the project uses federal funds, the condemnation process requires a state appraiser to look at the impacted land and provide a price tag for each property permanently impacted. The Vermont Agency of Transportation then pays out the total, according to Robin Pierce, the village’s director of community development.
Pierce said the village and state have been in negotiations with the two remaining property owners for four months.
“The appraisal was done, the funds were offered to the people in question and they rejected them,” Pierce said. “We’ve had three, four, five, six visits with them, telephone calls, emails, trying to get them to come to the point where the approved compensation VTrans sets is acceptable to them. They’ve said no.”
According to Pierce, only a “sliver” of the two properties will be impacted; for one property, the impacted land is already an access drive, so the village wouldn’t be taking any property “that isn’t used by vehicles” already.
“We’re replacing the access drive with a village street, which means we’ll be providing the access, not them. We’ll be maintaining it, not them,” Pierce said.
Asked last Friday to name the property owners, Pierce said he would check in with the village attorney to see if he was allowed to do so, but hadn’t shared the names with The Reporter by its deadline Tuesday.
Municipal manager Evan Teich said landowners will eventually be paid the minimum appraised value and can continue to go through the re-appraisal process to seek what they believe to be the fair market value. He added there’s usually some “wiggle room” in the appraisal value, since VTrans typically would prefer to avoid costly legal proceedings. Potential remedies could include the village paying the difference between what the property owners want and what VTrans is willing to pay.
But Teich said the two property owners are currently “asking for more money that is outside of that wiggle room.” Still, he and Pierce said they remain hopeful the village will reach an agreement with the property owners prior to heading to court.
If the trustees find the condemnation to be in the public’s best interest, then the construction will begin regardless of appraisal status, Teich said.
“It is just a matter of how much people get paid,” he said.
Property owners have 30 days from the trustees’ order to appeal. If they seek only damages, or more money than the appraiser determined, then the trustees may proceed with the work. If the land owners appeal whether the road is necessary, the opening of the road will be stayed until a Superior Court judge issues an opinion.