BURLINGTON — Who would have guessed a patch of blackberries could be the source of so much bitterness? For three years, a small wetland separating a new housing development from a cluster of four berry-friendly residential backyards has been the site of a heated bidding war. On Monday, the last shot was fired at a three-and-a-half-hour meeting at City Hall, but neither side feels that it walked away victorious.
The development — Burlington Co-Housing , or “CoHo” — is located on East Avenue between Williston Road and Colchester Avenue. Since 2004, co-housing administrators and several neighbors have bickered over the 15,600-square-foot piece of land. Though CoHo is obligated to sell it, neighbors say the group has not been willing to offer a reasonable price.
On Monday, the neighbors agreed to buy just over a third — 6000 square feet — of the contested parcel for $20,000.
The battle began in 2004, when a landowner named Edith Turner died and distributed a multi-acre estate in her will. Part of the estate was subsequently donated to the University of Vermont’s Centennial Woods conservation area. The rest of it went to the Burlington Community Development Corporation, which would later construct Burlington Co-Housing — a mixed-income, environmentally conscious housing development that’s scheduled to open in the next few weeks.
There was one catch, however. From the beginning, CoHo agreed to sell the 15,600-square-foot piece to homeowners who live on adjacent Bilodeau Parkway.
Jeanne Keller has lived on the street for 23 years. She initially thought acquiring the strip of land sounded like a great idea and touted the deal in a September 2005 Seven Days article entitled, "It Takes a Neighborhood .” “As part of the project deal, abutting neighbors . . . will buy extensions of our back yards into the former Turner fields. In exchange, we promise to never develop on them. Except, of course, to cultivate vegetables, berries and flowers,” Keller noted. A January 2006 city zoning agreement confirmed Burlington Co-Housing’s obligation to sell.
But then negotiations soured. According to Michael Monte, director of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office  (CEDO), the city’s offer to officiate a joint appraisal process “has not been acceptable to both sides, at different times.” Monte, who has weighed in on the dispute all along, declined to say what he thinks would be a fair price for the contested property.
Fast forward to February 2007. Keller and three other neighbors offered, “in the spirit of maintaining and furthering our cooperative efforts,” to purchase about two-thirds — 9600 square feet — of the initial property for $20,000. Their five-page proposal based price estimates on comparable local property acquisitions, as well as on the value of the conserved land in adjacent Centennial Woods.
CoHo didn’t respond to that offer for eight months. Then, in a two-page letter dated October 7, a co-housing rep offered to sell half the property — 7800 square feet — for $40,000. Though apologizing for a delayed response, the representative called the offer a “gesture of good will,” as opposed to an “obligation.” The “gesture” doubled the price of the land and trimmed off 1800 acres.
CoHo’s October proposal gave Bilodeau residents a 30-day window in which to make a final decision. CoHo representatives “don’t understand that they’re supposed to negotiate something reasonable,” charged Keller last week, standing in her backyard garden.
Co-Housing project developer Don Schramm disagrees. “I can see that from her point of view, this issue is the most important thing in the world,” he said on Friday, sitting at a plastic table in an unfinished CoHo lobby. “But we also have a lot of other, more serious, things on our plates.” Schramm said he bases his figures on ones provided by Michael Monte during early negotiations. Monte said, however, that those estimates were given within a “what if” context and shouldn’t be considered official.
Burlington City Attorney Ken Schatz, who has presided over the property dispute, was away from his office and could not be reached for comment this week. City Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), who has been party to the neighborhood negotiations since 2004, did not return repeated phone and email requests for an interview.
But the finger pointing isn’t confined to the negotiating parties. Schramm also implicated Seven Days. He suggested the newspaper may be paying more attention than it should to Keller’s complaint, pointing out that she is a personal friend of a Seven Days owner and a former contributor to the publication. In recent months, Schramm had visited the Seven Days office several times to pitch a story about the benefits of CoHo life, noting that the development still has units for sale.
“If co-housing’s coverage doesn’t look good, I think [Schramm] needs to look at the way he’s treating us,” suggested Keller. “The way that we’re being treated would look bad in any newspaper.” She added that CoHo and CEDO were brought to the bargaining table this Monday, only after Seven Days turned its attention to the conflict. CoHo may have hoped to avoid unflattering press coverage, Keller posited.
CEDO’s Monte said, however, “This was an issue that was heating up, regardless.”
Schramm, who was absent from the City Hall proceedings Monday, could not be reached after the negotiation was settled. Keller visited the newspaper office just before 5 p.m. that day. “We’ve given up more than half of [our original offer],” she lamented, unfurling a zoning plan on a conference table. “The amount per square foot is . . . just an exorbitant amount of money to pay for land that I wanted to garden on.
“We shook hands [with CoHo reps at the meeting],” she recalls. “But everyone agreed that we were all unhappy.”