Susan Ballek and Imanol Echevarria came to Vermont looking for a place to settle down and start a business.
They found a serene 54-acre property practically a stone’s throw from Mount Philo State Park. The land, across Mt. Philo Road to the west of the park’s entrance, had been for sale for years.
Ballek and Echevarria bought the property last year for $450,000. For the past year, they have been working with Trudell Consulting Engineers in Williston to make their dreams come true.
Now, the couple is waiting for the Charlotte Planning Commission to decide whether to give them a subdivision permit to follow through with their plans.
Their hope is to build a home for themselves, a horse barn for their five or so horses with space to board about a dozen more horses.
Echevarria is an international show jumping rider, a Royal Spanish Equestrian Federation instructor, and a certified therapeutic riding instructor at their current home in Connecticut. He hopes to continue teaching and riding in Vermont.
A key part of their plan, however, calls for selling off two 5-acre lots to help pay for construction of their home and business, which is why they are seeking a subdivision permit.
They worked with Jeremy Matosky, president and senior engineer at Trudell, to plan the three-lot subdivision. They created a 48-slide presentation addressing wetlands, stormwater drainage, wildlife on the property, details of the appearance and more.
“There was one sketch-plan review that undertook two site visits — one standard visit and one where planning commissioners viewed the site from points along the summit of Mount Philo — and a public hearing,” said Charlotte Town Planner Daryl Benoit. “After which, there has been this subdivision application that has taken two public hearings to complete.”
The Charlotte Land Trust asked the planning commission to consider the views, agriculture and wildlife that are intertwined with this parcel of land so close to Mount Philo.
“As much as possible, the final result should be compatible with the surrounding scenic pattern. This will help protect the investment already made to preserve the views from the park,” the trust wrote in a letter to the commission.
The Charlotte Conservation Commission was particularly concerned about a wildlife crossing in the corner of the parcel closest to Mount Philo, which would be on one of the 5-acre lots to be sold.
Multiple neighbors weighed in with concerns about wildlife and scenic views.
They had so many questions during the first public hearing on April 5 that the planning commission decided to continue the conversation May 17.
In an unusual development, following the April 5 planning commission meeting,
Ballek and Echevarria received a $450,000 cash purchase offer from Vermont Green Space Preservation LLC. They had never heard of the company before and a check with state records showed that it was formed on April 5 – the same day as the planning meeting.
The company’s filing with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office lists Molly K. Langan, a lawyer with the Burlington firm Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, as the company contact. Despite the word “preservation” in the company’s name, its description with the Secretary of State lists “other activities related to real estate.”
Langan, who did not return messages from The Citizen for comment, is the only person listed on the real estate offer as well.
Waiting for results
Before last week’s hearing wrapped up, discussion turned to possible compromises on the sensitive issues. One suggestion offered was to consider creating an open-space agreement to limit development on the parcel.
The commission, Ballek, and Echevarria talked about how to ensure that most of the 54 acres would not be built upon. Essentially suggesting that only the homes and barn would be constructed; the rest of the land would stay open.
Zoning in that part of Charlotte requires building lots to be at least 5 acres. Theoretically, up to 10 houses could be built on the 54 acres; Matosky said the property could accommodate seven septic systems with current technology.
Benoit said the planning commission wants to protect and maintain areas of high public value on the property. If the commission works out an open-space agreement with Ballek and Echevarria, the Selectboard would need to approve it.
If the three-lot subdivision is approved, buyers of the two lots would be required to apply for permits to build houses on each of the 5-acre lots.
The couple does not have any buyers lined up for the lots yet and Echevarria said he has begun talks with the Charlotte Land Trust, which could potentially buy the lots and preserve them.
Echevarria said he Ballek don’t want to see more than their home and two others on the property.
“I want to grow old here. I don’t want more houses,” Echevarria said.
The planning commission last week voted unanimously to close the hearing on the subdivision request, beginning a 45-day deliberation period. That decision is due by July 1.