On a summer’s day in 2018, Rosanne Greco heard a knocking at her door.
Opening it, she was met with a group of strangers seeking advice.
They were neighbors objecting to a newly proposed development project, and they had heard she would know what to do next.
Dorset Meadows, LLC, the project’s developer, called for 151 units in a single-, two- and multi-family setup, with one existing home on Dorset Street.
Steven and Dunia Partilo, of South Burlington, bought two of the three parcels — about 37 acres — earlier this fall. South Burlington’s assessor Todd Leblanc said 1455 Dorset St. sold for $300,000 and 1475 Dorset St. for $1.5 million.
They don’t know what they’ll do with the land yet, but they wanted to prevent the 150-home installation.
Dorset Meadows, LLC, owns about 44 acres and, according to the Parilos, can build no more than nine homes on it.
The land where the Dorset Meadows development was planned is a lush field with trees and views of distant mountains. It is in South Burlington’s South East Quadrant, an area known for its open spaces and historically agricultural land.
When neighbors caught wind that the landowner was looking to develop, they didn’t want to see those acres of natural space disappear from their backyards.
“We all were up in arms when we heard about how many units they wanted to put in there. That was really the kicker, and so we started to get together as a neighborhood group,” Partilo explained.
Greco agreed to meet with the neighbors, explain the development review process, suggest ways in which they could get involved and what their best chances were.
Initially some neighbors offered to buy the land from Dorset Meadows, L.L.C. But the developer declined to sell, Greco said.
The group argued before the development review board that the land was classified as primarily for conservation, per the city’s own 2016 “comprehensive plan” which was meant to guide city growth for a 20-year span.
“The residents were able to quickly find this important piece of information, and we raised it repeatedly throughout the two-year process. The planning and zoning staff never pointed that out, nor did they ever speak to environmental concerns related to the proposed development,” Greco said. “That’s a major concern I’ve always had.”
She felt that South Burlington residents were deterred from speaking at public meetings by officials, told then by the development review board that they should seek out the planning commission instead, for example.
Planning and zoning director Paul Conner told WCAX in 2018, “there’s a lot of questions that neighbors had that are appropriate questions, but they are questions for a later stage in the review.”
As the neighbors became more familiar with the city processes, they picked up their efforts. They called on the people of South Burlington to write to the council and express their worries about development not just about Dorset Meadows, but across the city. Hundreds of letters and emails were sent, Greco said. Ultimately, the city council decided to adopt the interim zoning bylaw – tapping the breaks on development across the city for nine months, with the option to extend the bylaw in increments for up to two years. The council organized committees to study open space and transfer development rights while the planning commission looked at the city’s Land Development Regulations and planned unit developments.
“I’m really impressed with the City Council in South Burlington, they listened to the residents,” Partilo said.
But it was too late for the Dorset Meadows proposal to be impacted – it was in its preliminary plat review before the bylaw was adopted. So, the neighbors’ lawyer helped them articulate their arguments in subsequent review meetings, Miller said
In March 2020, the development review board voted unanimously against approving the Dorset Meadows final plat application.
The developer appealed the decision to the environmental court and last month was denied.
Then, this summer, the developer contacted the Partilos and asked if they were interested in buying the land. After months of back and forth, the Partilos bought two of the three parcels totaling about 37 acres of land, closing on the deal earlier this month.
“I hate to say this, the city was not on our side—that is, on the side of the environmental. We were rebuffed, and even treated rudely during some DRB meetings” Greco said.
At times, the planning and zoning staff did not return the neighbor’s calls, while emails obtained through the lawsuit show that the same staff met and exchanged emails with the project applicant, she added.
“It was an upward battle, and we did it on our own,” Greco said.
The Partilos have started looking into sustainable agriculture as one possibility for the land. Partilo has met with Assistant Professor Terence Bradshaw of the University of Vermont’s College of Agriculture and life sciences. Bradshaw is interested in having his spring semester students use the area as a case study and design ideas for different sustainable agricultural uses for the land, Partilo said.
“At this point it’s wide open, we don’t really know what we’ll do,” Partilo said. “But having that density of housing going in there was something we knew that we didn’t want. It’s really been a pretty incredible journey to get here.”
The land’s developer, once willing to sell, was very accommodating, Partilo said.
And having the land is a win for both South Burlington and Shelburne residents: “The moral of the story is that concerned neighbors can actually have an impact,” Partilo said.
Greco reflected by saying, “One thing alone wouldn’t have done it, all things together did it.”