Who Is Leaving Montpelier, and Why?

by Phil Dodd

In the first part of this two-part series, published May 21, we reported the stories of seven people who had recently moved to Montpelier or were in the process of moving here. They were generally upbeat stories. In Part 2, we’ll hear from several people who have recently moved away or are planning to do so soon. Not all of their stories are as positive.

As in the first article, several themes emerged. One thing we discovered this time around is that people who are leaving are not always eager to talk about their situation or their reasons for moving away. For example, one Montpelier family that had been looking for land on which to build decided they couldn’t move ahead in Montpelier or surrounding towns due to high costs and extensive regulations, so they moved to New Hampshire. But they declined to be named or interviewed in depth for this story.

Another couple, long-time residents of District 3 who are now retired and also did not want their names used, said they love Montpelier but find it unaffordable. They are selling their house and moving away due to the cold climate and high taxes. “It’s tough here,” one of them said.

Taxes were a recurrent theme among departing homeowners. Vermont does have higher than average property taxes compared with other states — at least for those who are not income-sensitized — and within the state, Montpelier’s taxes are among the very highest. In addition, Vermont is one of only 15 states that tax social security income.

Gregg Banse is not collecting social security yet, but he headed south anyway. A native Vermonter who lived in Montpelier for 15 years, Banse sold his house in March and moved to Virginia for a new job at a university. “I left for two reasons,” he said. “The first is that the pay scale in Vermont is far too low for those with professional skills,” he said. “The second reason is the tax rate in Montpelier, which is out of control.”

Now that he lives elsewhere, he says Montpelier seems small and insular. He also thinks the city needs to upgrade the downtown, which he finds run down, so that tourists will want to return. “I’ve asked probably two dozen people from around New England and Burlington about visiting Montpelier and every one of them said the same thing: ‘Once is enough,’” he said. Still, Banse said he loves Vermont and hopes to return some day after saving enough money “to support the luxury of living there.”

State and Main. Photo by Aron Vaught.

State and Main. Photo by Aron Vaught.

Young people make up another class of residents who move away, often to pursue job opportunities or just for a change. Scott Baker was 27 years old when he came to Vermont. After a year in Stowe, Baker found a job at Onion River Sports and moved to Montpelier, eventually becoming the store’s bicycle parts and accessories buyer.

“I loved the charm of the town and after a period of exhausting anonymity in Stowe, I thought it would be nice to find a community in an isolated, well-educated capital village where I could talk bikes and skis and beer,” he said. “Plus, I could ditch the car and the resort-fueled economy of a bedroom and weekender community for the practicality of a more grounded, local community.” 

Baker said he fell in love with Montpelier and stayed three years, but found “it eventually became a bit claustrophobic for me, and I thought it was too removed from the larger cultural conversation that I was hoping to engage in,” he said. Two years ago, Baker moved on to Portland, Oregon, where he now works as service manager for a large bike shop. Portland is “young, vibrant, and funky,” he said.

Still, he misses the quiet of Montpelier and the friends he made here. “Last time I was back in town it felt as if everything had changed and nothing had changed at all,” he said.  “State and Main still intersected at the same spot and Bob still was serving coffee at Capitol Grounds to a crabby Fred Wilber from Buch Spieler.” (Editor’s note: things do change — Wilber recently sold Buch Spieler.)  Baker, now 33, concluded about Montpelier: “I am not sure if I will ever see a time where it will be a place where I want to live again.”

Of course, some people who leave Montpelier don’t move as far away as the West Coast, even choosing in some cases to stay in Vermont. Tanya and Kevin Morehouse just sold their house in Montpelier and are moving to Williston at the end of the school year so their kids will have more educational opportunities than in Montpelier, even though both parents will have to commute back to Montpelier for work. “We want our two boys to be in a school system with more choices — academic, athletic, and extra-curricular,” said Tanya Morehouse.

“These options seem like they may be on the decline in Montpelier due to the small student population, budget pressures, and the failure to combine with U-32,” she said. “We looked at U-32, and they have a great campus and AP courses, but they have a declining student population, too.” The Morehouse boys will eventually attend Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, where the student population is growing, she said.

“Montpelier is a wonderful community,” added Tanya, who served on the board of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. “We loved the elementary school, and the fact the boys could walk to the library or the Recreation Department or bike to the recreation field.”

Todd Daloz and his wife, Susie, who first came to Montpelier in late 2008, moved an even shorter distance away from Montpelier when they left. After renting an apartment for a few months, they bought a house near Vermont College of Fine Arts and lived there for three years. “There were lots of young families living nearby, and we used to call it ‘Mayberry’ because it had this wonderful, laid-back feel with children playing in the street and regular neighborhood gatherings,” he said. “We were sad to leave and we try to keep in touch with our old neighbors.”

After looking at houses in Montpelier for several months but not finding anything suitable, Todd and Susie moved to their current house in Middlesex in 2012. “This house was a perfect fit for us, providing more space for our growing family at a reasonable price (not to mention the lower property taxes), and we’re only a few miles from downtown Montpelier. We love the ability to have a sizable garden and ready access to acres of woods and fields for exploring.”

Todd, who works for the state, said he and his wife still feel quite connected to Montpelier: “We visit our friends in Montpelier, go out to restaurants and movies, attend parades and festivals, use the fabulous library and frolic on the State House lawn. We love Montpelier and by living just over the line into Middlesex, we have the best of both worlds — space to roam and easy access to a great town.”

Yet another group of people departing Montpelier are those who leave for just part of the year. Long-time Montpelier residents Greg and Sarah Guyette grew up in Berlin and Middlesex, respectively, and observed while growing up that kids in Montpelier can walk to their friends’ houses without being driven by their parents. “So for ourselves and our daughter, we wanted to live in Montpelier instead of on a dirt road,” Greg said.

Neither Greg nor Sarah is a fan of winter, however. After their daughter graduated from Montpelier High School in 2014, they made a lifestyle change that allows them to spend winters in Florida and summers in a four-unit apartment house on Elm Street that they bought when they sold their house. They rent their personal unit out to legislators during the session.

Greg’s work allows him to be based wherever he likes. This past winter they were in Florida for four months, and next winter it will be closer to six months. But while away, he missed Montpelier. “I lived here all my life and took it for granted, but I was only away a month when I realized how great Montpelier is,” he said. “We were at a beach, but there was no downtown, and people there were not interested in their neighbors.”

Unlike the Guyettes, Dot Helling is a fan of winter, at least Colorado-style. The retired attorney has retained her house in Montpelier, which also served as her office. The house is now split into two apartments, one of which she lives in, but Helling heads to Colorado by Dec. 1 to work (and ski) at Purgatory Ski Area and stay with her sister until returning to Vermont in April or May.

Helling has lived in Montpelier since 1984, and said she loves the fact she knows many people in town and is cared about and valued here. Plus, she likes Montpelier’s easy access to woods and mountains. “We also have plenty of water,” she said about Vermont. “The West is brown and dry in the summers.” 

The cons of living in Montpelier, she said, are the expenses (“property taxes on a similarly valued property in Colorado would be one tenth as much as here”), the lack of sun and the cold winters here (“Vermonters tend to hibernate in winter, while Colorado is alive with outdoor activity”). Two other drawbacks are the generally sketchy Vermont ski conditions (“this year was an exception”), and the poor condition of Montpelier’s infrastructure.

Living in two states may sound appealing, but it can create its own anxieties, Helling said, such as when she does not get the right tenant or housesitter, or when “I know it’s a harsh winter here, since houses take so much to maintain.” She went on: “I don’t make any money on my house, so that’s another consideration for future plans. Unless I can figure out the finances so I can continue to go back and forth, there will come a time when I have to decide where I want to be full time. For now, I remain thankful that I am healthy and fit and able to be active and travel and spend time with my siblings and close friends.”