Working Together: A Community Reimagines a Landmark Farm

Aerial view of the forest next to Lake Memphramagog

Lake Memphremagog stretches north from Newport, rounding a forested point and reaching toward Canada. The view of the lake from downtown Newport City, enhanced by the undeveloped bluff just across the bay, is one of Newport’s most important scenic assets.

The undeveloped point is occupied by Bluffside Farm, 129 acres of open fields and forest that had been owned for years by the Scott family. In 2015, it became apparent that the farm was in danger of being foreclosed on and sold at auction. VLT was aware of the situation, and had been talking with the Scott family for some time. It had also heard from community members, who were concerned about the future of the farm.

A lot was at stake. “This property is pretty special,” said VLT’s Tracy Zschau. “It’s the largest undeveloped property within the city.”

The farm has several large fields separated by swathes of oak and red pine forest. There are a number of ecologically important sites on the property, including an active eagle’s nest. Over a mile of natural sand beach, a rarity on Vermont lakes, runs along the edge of the land directly opposite downtown. Public access to the lake in and around Newport is limited. The farm also sits directly between two unconnected recreational paths.

After a strong show of public support, VLT bought the property from the Scott family for $1 million with a loan from The Conservation Fund. Before making any specific plans, VLT wanted to involve the broader Newport community in thinking about ways the property could be used.

“I think many people were interested in that land, but I don’t think a lot of people knew what was there, or what the potential was,” said Karen Geraghty, who works for the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA).

“We wanted the future of Bluffside Farm to be guided by the community,” added Tracy. “We asked people to imagine what it could be and how it could serve Newport.”

And so with NVDA, the land trust held many walking tours and three public meetings at which Newport-area residents were asked to consider what Bluffside Farm could become. Through this, a multi-faceted vision emerged:

Farming: For many years Bluffside was a dairy farm. Now the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is using some of the land to grow vegetables for a hospital nutrition program and a local farmer is haying the fields. It is the last large piece of farmland within the city; those at the public meetings said they wanted some form of farming to continue there.

Recreation: The property sits between two unconnected recreational paths that, if connected, would span seven miles from downtown Newport to the Canadian border. Participants at all the meetings were enthusiastic about expanding recreational opportunities.

Natural Features: The site has sensitive wetlands, bluffs, and lakeshore, and hosts many birds and animals. Remnants of Native American presence and early colonial settlement activity, notably, the timbers of a stagecoach bridge, are also evident. Protection of these natural and cultural resources was high on the list of citizen wishes.

See documents from the 2017 meetings here:

March Meeting: Presentation | Notes from Breakout Groups
April Meeting: Presentation
May Meeting: Presentation

Beth Barnes, a community outreach specialist for North Country Hospital and a representative of the Memphremagog Ski Touring Foundation, noted that childhood obesity and inactivity is a significant problem in the county. She said expansion of the trails through and around Bluffside Farm can help build a healthier community: “It would offer really perfect opportunities for training kids on these trails.”

A trail system connecting Newport with the Canadian border and beyond could be a powerful economic driver, according to Karen. “That corridor would be an incredible asset for Newport,” she said.

Green tomatoes on vine, farm in background

This summer, the trail project hit a major milestone when the Northern Border Regional Commission awarded it $425,000. “I was over the moon when I heard about the award,” said Tracy. “There’s still a lot of fundraising to go, but receiving a grant of this size is the critical first step.”

VLT aims to eventually sell the land to a farmer who appreciates the complex nature of the property and supports the community’s conservation and recreational goals. Finding the right owner will be important.

“We’re taking this one step at time,” said Tracy. “We realize we’re a significant landowner in Newport, and have a responsibility to listen, and to proceed thoughtfully.”

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2016-17 Annual Report. Story by Tom Slayton; photos by Caleb Kenna.