MANCHESTER — Voters in Manchester may get a chance to cast ballots on Town Meeting Day over whether they want to make the rail trail a town asset.
The keyword is “may” as the Select Board on Tuesday night agreed to consider the request at its next meeting planned for Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Three of the four owners of the still private trail were on hand and made passionate arguments for the town to put the proposed sale of the trail to the town on this year’s ballot.
Bill Drunsic told the board there is a proposal from the owners to sell the trail to the town for the cost of the improvements they have put into it.
Drunsic said the owners will donate the 1.6-mile swath of land to the town. They’re asking $200,000 for the costs they’ve incurred to turn the land into a usable multi-use trail that runs from near Riley Rink at Hunter Park to North Road.
Plus, Drunsic said, the Manchester Bike group, commits to raising $80,000 of that purchase price through donations making the final cost $120,000, payable in annual $30,000 payments at 2.5 percent interest over four years.
The owners, because the town is in a budget crunch due to COVID-19, would put off the first payment until 2022.
“We’re requesting the select board warn an article for town meeting that lets the voters decide,” Drunsic said.
Drunsic said the owners are in a pickle because they have built a trail intended to be used by the public but the permitting process has it so they can’t technically open it up to public use. They have formed a group that people can sign up to, which gives them permission to use the “private” trail and hundreds of people use the trail regularly to hike, bike, jog and walk dogs.
It connects to a currently existing town trail that runs from Manchester Elementary Middle School to Hunter Park.
“We went out on a limb to obtain this property and we went further to prepare it to a usable state,” Drunsic said. “Townsfolk want to use it and have been using it. We can’t continue in limbo like this. It’s not good for us, not good for the neighbors and it’s not good for the town.”
They had plenty of support. The board meeting, held on Zoom as all meetings currently are, had 38 people in attendance counting the board and staff. The majority of those people were in attendance to support the trail.
That support was not lost on the board.
Board chair Ivan Beattie spoke of that support.
“I’ve had 54 emails,” Beattie said. And 53 of those were in support.”
Beattie said he did get a few phone calls and had some conversations with those who oppose the idea of the town purchasing the trail.
Beattie, however, remained a hard sell, saying that despite the overwhelming support, he remained opposed to doing it this year because of the budget constraints caused by COVID.
The town has cut every department’s budget but the fire department. The board has also kept payroll to a 0.18 percent increase with no raises given and dissuaded anyone from coming to the town with new funding requests as the town’s budget has suffered from a reduction in local option tax revenue.
“It’s important to a lot of people, I know it is,” Beattie said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about this. I don’t think anybody argues the value of the trail. Our town budget is heavily invested in recreation. But, I’ve made my position very clear. I don’t think this is a good time to do it. I really respect everyone’s opinion on this.”
Beattie said he remains very interested in finding if there is a different structure to make it happen such as a nonprofit or some other way of making the trail public without adding it to the town’s balance sheet.
Board member Heidi Chamberlain spoke to that. As a former board member to the Vermont Land Trust, Chamberlain has offered to put the owners in contact with people who can help.
She said she has spoken with representatives of the Land Trust as well as people involved in a similar path in Waitsfield called the Mad River Trail.
She made it clear that she supports the trail, but believes the town should explore all options before committing town tax dollars.
“I think there are other options,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t know that we’ve fully vetted what the other options are for ownership.”
Board members Todd Nebraska and Jan Nolan also sounded hesitant during comments.
Nebraska wanted to know details about the state of the trail.
Drunsic said the trail is 100 percent usable now with two new bridges in, the length of the trail is covered in an all-weather crushed stone type surface.
But Nebraska wanted to know what the trail would cost taxpayers immediately and down the road.
“Are we taking over a trail that’s complete,” Nebraska asked. “Is all the construction done, are the bridges complete? Do they meet state standards? Are there further enhancements required? Are there costs beyond the purchase of the property.”
He also isn’t sure that even if the numbers work out, this is the year.
“Ultimately, I think the town is the right entity to own this,” Nebraska said. “My concern is timing. My gut feeling is that economically we’re going to be going into budget year 2022 and we’re going to be looking at COVID dragging on. I’d really like to know what all the numbers are. Do we want to take on, at minimum another 30,000 in the budget when we’re cutting everything else?”
Nolan agreed that hard numbers were needed to gain her support.
“I think we all need to give Heidi a chance to do what she’s doing and we need to have numbers,” Nolan said. “We really can’t put this forward without the numbers. If we’re going to put it on the ballot we need to give voters hard numbers and we don’t have that right now. If we had numbers that are realistic, honest numbers, maybe the groundswell might pass it.”
But board member Greg Cutler said that while he understood all the complaints, he said the overwhelming majority of folks who have spoken up want this trail.
He said that it seemed to him the plan was for the town to take over the trail and the last hurdle was a state grant that the town applied for and did not get in the fall.
“There was momentum for the town to take this property and given the enthusiasm I’d like to put it to the voters to decide,” Cutler said. “If there’s still overwhelming support through the ballot, then I don’t want to stand in the way.”
Cutler asked about the deadline for being able to get it on the budget and Town Manager John O’Keefe said Jan. 31 would be the last possibility.
With just over two weeks to go, some wondered out loud if it was possible to do all that needed to be done, including getting the numbers the board had requested, negotiate a deal and write the language for the warning to educate the voters and warn the question for this year.
But Drunsic said waiting another year isn’t an option.
“What are the other options,” Drunsic said. “We can’t wait another year.”
Drunsic pointed out that the value of the trail is “way beyond” the cost to the town
He said that if the town couldn’t put it on the ballot, a special town meeting might have to be called six months down the road.
“I was trying to avoid that,” Drunsic said. “But it’s an option I suppose.”
Drunsic was supported by two other of the owners, Amy and Robin Verner.
Robin Verner read from a letter he sent to the board asking that it be put on the ballot and saying there is “nothing to be lost by doing so.”
“The fate of the trail should not be decided without asking the voters,” he said. “The cost has been worked out in a reasonable fashion and will have minimal effect on taxes. The owners are donating the $40,000 cost of the land and have donated four years of sweat equity in clearing and creating the trail. Denying the public the use of the trail especially at this time when people need it most is counterproductive.”
Robin’s wife, Amy, said the trail will help Manchester attract visitors as shopping declines.
“Our retail is dead in this town, but people are more interested in recreation,” Amy Verner said. “We have negotiated this among ourselves. We’ve put in a lot more than $200,000. Bill has cut this down so that it is reasonable.”
The trail owners weren’t alone in their support.
Maurie Hill asked the board, “If not now, when? It’s looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
“We have to have something to offer visitors as well as people who live here,” Hill said, adding that she spent five days in a row on the trail with skis after the big snowstorm.
“It just makes sense for the town to own it,” she said.
Kathe Dillmann used the rec center to make her point.
“It was a falling-down eyesore that has slowly but surely become one of the greatest assets to this town,” Dillmann said “To put this project off when there is such demand for outdoor recreation … I would highly recommend you get this on the ballot this year. It’s truly needed and wanted in this town.”
Steven Nichols, a former select board member who often voices displeasure with town spending on social media, did not speak against the plan, but asked if the voted appropriations will be lumped together or separated.
Beattie said this item, if it goes on the ballot, would be separate not only because of the spending but because it involves real estate.
And attorney John Thrasher who was representing Roberts Homestead, property owners near the trail on North Road, said real numbers are needed.
“You need real numbers not only on the real costs but on ongoing maintenance,” Thrasher said. “I don’t think it’s just a matter of buying a trail. You’re buying an ongoing obligation.”
At the end of the lengthy meeting, optimism won out.
Although Beattie said nothing was promised, the board agreed to have O’Keefe run numbers and get some firm costs for the board by next meeting and see what they can come up with.
Cutler, Chamberlain, Nebraska and Nolan all said they would not oppose putting it on the town meeting warning if hard numbers were provided and made sense.
Beattie, said he saw the support and agreed that putting it to the voters was possible.