On March 16, the Swanton Selectboard will hold a public meeting to decide whether to proceed with the sale of a 1.2 acre plot to be developed as apartments, or whether to step back and consider how the land could be used for the community’s “greater good.”

The question has been raised because the town posted the land for sale — on 4th Street across from Swanton Elementary — as a means to offset part of the cost of building its town garage. Local developer Tyler Stanislas offered the town $100,000 for the property, indicating he would build a nine-unit apartment complex.

Typically, the town would accept the contract and welcome the development. The debate would be minimal, if at all.

But this is not a typical parcel of land and Swanton has before it opportunities it’s not had before. The Selectboard was correct in recognizing the issue important enough to open to the public. Mr. Stanislas agrees. He was quoted in the Messenger as saying he wants the public “…to be okay with it.”

The reason a number of people in Swanton have raised the issue [see letter on page 7] is that other options may exist that bring much greater value to the community. Once the land is sold and the apartment complex is built, the opportunities disappear.

The opportunities involve the completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, the longest of its kind in Vermont. It’s a 93-mile, four-season, multi-purpose trail with Swanton at the west end and St. Johnsbury on the east. The trail crosses five Vermont counties and, when complete, will arguably be one of Vermont’s premier tourist attractions.

The rail trail dead-ends in the middle of Swanton, at the end of the Richard Thompson Fit and Health recreational path, in immediate proximity to the 1.2 acres being considered for the apartment complex.

The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is slated to be fully complete within the next several years and it’s attracting a lot of attention from towns lucky enough to be near it. Most are finding ways to draw traffic from the trail into their towns recognizing the potential power of the recreational draw.

That’s the motivation behind the “Swanton Enhancement Project” group. They want the alternatives explored; they want to build upon Swanton’s natural assets, which it has in abundance. When the rail trail is complete a substantial increase in tourism is a part of the expectation. It would seem obvious to market Swanton as the trail’s key destination point; it’s closer to larger population centers than anywhere else on the trail. When Covid disappears from our lives, think about the potential coming from Montreal and Quebec in general. That’s over 3 million people within an hour’s drive.

Proposed plans for the 1.2 acre parcel could run the gamut, all under the direction of riding the trail to Swanton’s continued revitalization. One of the things we’ve learned from Covid and its forced isolation is that quality of life features figure prominently in the consideration of home owners, and few things address quality of life more than recreational offerings. Pedestrian trails are also great connectors to other parts of the community. It’s its own infrastructure, drawing people of similar interests. Rail trails also increase the value of nearby properties, for obvious reasons. Companies are influenced by the presence of pedestrian paths as an important amenity for their employees. The trails increase tax collections through the purchase of local goods and services. [Studies show that cycle tourists spend about a third more than nonresident travelers who arrive by car.]

When considerings its options it’s also important for Swanton to look beyond the immediate. Trails can be catalysts for revitalization efforts the community deems important, which is why it’s important to consider all options, at all locations. It can be an important vehicle for community diversification. The LVRT can literally be a lifeline into Swanton; an opportunity that needs to be thought through with all the creative energy possible.

It’s a time to be patient, as well. And to think long term. The Swanton group is asking for a year to consider its potentials; which is the blink of an eye. Opportunities like this don’t come about that often. When the Selectboard convenes the meeting on March 16, the hope shoud be that the Selectboard hears and embraces the need to fully consider all its options. It’s good to know Mr. Stanislas is being open-minded on the issue, asking the community to plan for its future. This is an opportunity too important to dismiss without giving it proper consideration.

By Emerson Lynn

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