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A lively interchange of ideas was heard at a public forum for potential uses of the Flemer Barns parcel in Waitsfield, including a working farm, condominiums, a community center and more.
The Flemer Barns Task Force held a public forum on January 31 to take public input on potential uses for the two large barns on the 4.5-acre parcel. One barn is 38 by 112 feet with a high drive and a five-bay equipment shed on the side. The other barn is 30 by 80 feet.
The land is located in Waitsfield Village with two red barns next to the Flemer Field Community Green, also known as the polo field. The town of Waitsfield has an option to purchase the property for $250,000, which expires July 31.
This fall the select board appointed a task force to study how the lands might be used. Task force members have been meeting almost weekly since the fall and brought some research to the public forum last week.
The history of the barns and the parcel was included in their research along with pictures of the interior and exterior of the buildings. Task force members also reviewed public opinion surveys going back to the 1990s, looking for trends that repeated across different platforms and different surveys.
What they found was consistent support for the idea of a youth or teen center and a community center as well as support for a place where cultural events and community gatherings could be held. Other concepts that have consistently received support are historic preservation of the barns, preservation of a working landscape, conservation of land and business development.
The task force considered four different ownership options. Under the first, the town of Waitsfield would purchase and develop the property. That would require a bond vote with a tax impact and the loss of $3,800 in property taxes on the parcel per year.
The second option considered was Waitsfield passing on the option to purchase the parcel and it being sold to a private developer – leaving the town and the community with no say in how it was developed (other than through the permitting process).
The third option was having the property purchased and developed completely by one or more nonprofit organizations. Waitsfield would lose control of the property and the success of the venture would depend on the strength and longevity of the nonprofits.
The fourth option would be a public/private partnership between Waitsfield and one or more nonprofits or between Waitsfield and a private entity.
Task force members were asked whether the Vermont Festival of the Arts and/or the Open Hearth Community Center had designs on the barns. Arts festival director Karen Nevin said that the barns absolutely had potential for the arts festival but also for agricultural uses and community use.
“We can see how it would mesh. We have ideas, but tonight we really want to hear your ideas,” said Nevin, who is also a member of the Flemer Barns Task Force.
Task force member Brian Degen, who is chair and founder of Open Hearth, noted that Open Hearth has been looking for a home for 10 years and he echoed what Nevin said, “We think these barns are an incredible opportunity for Open Hearth. With the right amount of financing and visioning there is enormous potential.”
Those present voiced support for a community center serving the entire Valley and funded by all Valley towns versus just Waitsfield. Task force members were asked how other community centers are funded and task force members explained that they had not yet done that research. Degen said that Open Hearth had explored other community center models for funding and discovered that some were municipally financed and some were done by nonprofits and there were also hybrids.
Support was offered for a place for parents to take young children as well as a place for high school students to get take art classes and get in touch with their creative sides.
Bob Burley said he was very much in favor of the town owning and developing the parcels and said that the price at which the Flemer family was offering to sell it made it almost a gift.
“I don’t have specific ideas, but I’d like to see affordable family housing, people using sidewalks and making it the kind of village that historically it has been. I’d hope the barns could be used for education and cultural uses and they could have cultural tenants. I see a very good mix of uses possible,” he said.
Town zoning administrator Susan Senning said that the planning commission has considered a variety of uses for the parcel as well, including residential development, not restricted to affordable housing but geared at people with large houses who want to live in a village and downsize to a smaller one-story, high-end condo.
Joshua Schwartz, a town resident and director of the Mad River Valley Planning District, said that when he let himself dream about how the property could be developed and what it could become, he saw a very successful project with a variety of uses, appropriate to the downtown setting. His dreaming, he said, was tempered by the financial reality of how much it would cost.
Task force member Logan Cooke, who is also a member of the Waitsfield Select Board, said that no one on the task force was suggesting that the financial costs be shouldered solely by Waitsfield.
Connie Gaylord and Emily von Trapp both spoke of a desire to have an agricultural component be part of what happens on the parcel, whether it is a place where schoolchildren can learn about animals or whether it is developed along the lines of Shelburne Farms, a working farm.
The task force is currently soliciting public opinions via a survey that can be found on the task force website: flemerbarns.org. That survey is also available at the Moretown, Warren and Fayston town offices as well as at the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce offices at the Wait House.
Members of the task force include Ruth Pestle, Logan Cooke, Karen Nevin, Brian Degen, Joseph Klimek, AnnMarie Harmon, Stan Ward, Kaiya Korb, Kirsten Seibert, Harrison Myers and Jack Simko. Town zoning administrator Susan Senning is the point person for the town.