Been There, Dunn That

Bill Dunn of Hillside Properties lives life large -- from developing Vermont to sailing the Caribbean

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Ask Bill Dunn what he does and he'll probably tell you "I'm a sailor," but this simple statement is not entirely what it seems. Dunn is the owner and developer of Hillside Park in Winooski and Hillside East in Williston. Dunn is a man who believes in living life on his own terms. "I'm the luckiest man alive," he says, and sitting on his deck overlooking yacht-filled Shelburne Bay, Mount Mansfield looming in the distance, it's hard to disagree.

Bill Dunn

Bill Dunn of Hillside Properties operates out of his Shelburne home with the company of cockapoo Lily. "I love building," he says, "because I can be everything from general contractor to clerk of works."

Originally from Providence, R.I., where he grew up on the east side near the Brown University campus, Dunn is one of five brothers. "After we all grew up, our mom took a master's in abnormal psychology," he says. "She always said she wrote all her papers about us." Dunn fell in love with Vermont when he came to UVM in 1963, ostensibly as an English major but really "to play hockey," he says. He played in the first game ever held at Gutterson Fieldhouse, starting in defense and scoring. "I never scored another goal," he admits. On the other hand, he did meet Lane, who became his wife. The two decided to settle in Burlington, and Dunn became a teacher at Rice Memorial High School and a hockey coach at UVM -- where he set up the hockey program -- while Lane began an active career as a women's advocate, a career she recently crowned by becoming an attorney. When their son, Andy, was born in 1976, "the light bulb came on above my head," grins Dunn. "I had to make some money. At that point I was making $5,300 a year," he adds ruefully.

He decided to enter the world of property development, and found a couple of suitable buildings. "I did residential development in Burlington for 10 years," he explains, "and then decided to get out of residential development and into commercial." In 1985 he found the perfect location in Winooski, an old sawmill on the border with Colchester and close to Exit 15 of Interstate 89. "The place was really decrepit," he says. "It came with 60,000 board feet of lumber, which I had to buy as a package. I sold the steel from the buildings to finance the project, but I had to give away the lumber." At that time, state law entitled developers to an Industrial Revenue Bond. "I also applied to HUD in Washington for an Urban Development Action Grant," he says, "which is a grant to the city and a low-interest loan to the developer."

With the help of the City Council and Vermont National Bank, which had just opened in Winooski, Hillside Park came into being. Dunn rehabilitated the sawmill into 6,600 square feet of office space and built a multi-tenant building that occupies 40,000 square feet -- "bigger than a football field," Dunn points out. "After it was built, I went and stood inside it. None of it was rented. I thought: 'What have I done? I've had a million-dollar party, and no one came!'"

Hillside Park quickly filled with tenants, and in 1986 Dunn went looking for another property. "I was interested in the interstate exits," he says. "I ended up buying a 50-acre subdivision in the southeast quadrant of Exit 12." The site lay within Williston's Interstate Commercial Zone, which the Town Plan earmarked for providing services for interstate travelers. Dunn applied for and received an Act 250 Umbrella Permit, and began work on the access road, called Hurricane Lane. "Act 250 was a very, very difficult hurdle to jump over in the mid-'80s," explains Dunn. "But I think I've been vindicated, and I do think that interstate exits are an appropriate area for development. Would I rather live in a state with Act 250 or one without it?" he considers. "Even as a developer, I'd have to say I'd rather have it than not."

Although he thinks urban sprawl is an unavoidable result of growth, he has tried to avoid the controversies that have dogged Vermont developments over the last decade. "Act 250 standards are higher on the south side of the interstate. We had to put tons of money towards improving the infrastructure," he explains. "By its actions, the town of Williston has shown that they like what I've done at Hillside East," he believes. "The Select Board controls water allocations. I needed water for the Marriott we're building [a Courtyard East by Marriott is under construction on Hurricane Lane]. They gave it to me. I've had nothing but good relations with the town through three or four town planners and zoning boards."

Dunn & Allan and Judy Malachuk

Bill Dunn flanked by Allan and Judy Malachuk of KBA North America. The Hurricane Lane office sells and services offset printing equipment manufactured in Germany.

Rene Read, Williston's zoning administrator, is happy to agree. "Bill's a terrific person," he says. "He's great to work with, very congenial but very much by the book. If he's planning a new building, he'll bring in a very complete application showing a lot of detail -- he doesn't just paint broad brush strokes." Read says that "If we do have a difference of opinion, it's usually something we can work out -- I can't give you an example, because it's never really happened."

Dunn brings much hands-on experience to his development projects. In 1970 he and Lane bought an old house in East Charlotte for $50 and moved it to a lot the couple owned in Hanksville. "You can't do that anymore," he smiles. Dunn built the family's present home, which nestles into a wooded slope above Lake Champlain with sweeping views of the Green Mountains, on land that used to be the northeast corner of Shelburne Farms.

Allan Malachuk, president of KBA North America, who moved from Long Island to Hillside East seven years ago, describes Dunn as "very hands-on. He builds his own buildings, so he knows what he's doing."

Dunn also believes if sprawl is inevitable, aesthetics are vital. "I had control over the whole landscape of the Hillside East development," he says. "I like to build in brick, for example -- it looks so much better. What I wanted was a campus feel. I want to provide a nice place to work, for a reasonable rent."

The formula seems to be successful. "It's a lovely development," says Malachuk. And, he says, of the KBA work force of 44, 22 made the move from Long Island, attracted by Vermont and their new premises.

Read sees Dunn as someone deeply involved in all areas of development. "Very often you run into someone who wants to have his finger in every pie but who runs into trouble in areas where he has no expertise. Not Bill -- he's not afraid to delegate, or to come to us." This involvement has helped shape the sympathetic impact of Hillside East. A diverse range of buildings -- very different from the unimaginative boxes that often pass for commercial architecture -- blend into mature woodland and attractive perennial plantings. "Bill has a certain sense of style," explains Read, "and he's managed to work within one design theme and make it a success."

"I love building," states Dunn, who runs things from his home, with Lily, his faithful white cockapoo, for company, "because I can be everything, from general contractor to clerk of works." Nonetheless, over the years he's assembled "a great group of subcontractors." The keys to success, he believes, are "honesty, cooperation and hard work."

Despite his all-embracing involvement in developing his properties, Dunn manages to lead a double life. "I live according to a Chinese proverb that says: 'Work hard and then step back -- the only path to serenity.' I believe in stepping back and sailing away," he declares.

Every year, after Thanksgiving, Dunn flies to Antigua and puts his 46-foot English yawl, Meridian, into the water. "She's beautiful," he enthuses, "built in 1976, designed by Holman and Pye, the famous English naval architects." He spends the winter sailing out of Antigua and up and down the Windward and Leeward Islands of the eastern Caribbean. "I'm never back before the crocuses are out," he says. But for someone whose nickname in the Islands is 'Deep Water' -- "because that's where I like to spend my time," Dunn explains -- he's not too far from work. "I've got a phone on the boat, that connects to a satellite 23,000 miles above the equator," he says. "Within a nanosecond I'm in the Bell Atlantic system." He has a capable team to keep an eye on matters in Vermont. "My bookkeeper is Sue Connelly, and her husband, Dan, has his own construction business. In my absence they look after things -- they probably do a better job than me anyway," he adds.

Boat

Bill Dunn spends winters sailing the Caribbean in his 46-foot English yawl, pictured on the Sir Francis Drake Channel, off Little Thatch Cay, British Virgin Islands. "I've got a phone on the boat that connects to a satellite," he says. "Within a nanosecond I'm in the Bell Atlantic system." (Photo: Courtesy of Bill Dunn)

Every year Antigua hosts a classic yacht regatta in late April. After that, Dunn knows it's time to come home to Vermont. "A week later, and my boat's in the water here." The Dunns' house is just south of the Lake Champlain Yacht Club and overlooks Shelburne Bay. "If I can't see a mast when I get home in the spring, mine will be the first." Dunn still loves Vermont's winters, though, and if circumstances conspire to lure him back from the Caribbean, he's happy to ski and, sometimes, to skate, although he claims that "I spent so much time in hockey rinks when I was growing up that the only time I'll put on skates is when the lake has black ice." Then there's nothing finer than skating on Burlington harbor -- "like a Breugel painting," he declares.

Dunn usually sails alone. Lane's work in women's advocacy, and now as an attorney in the Law Office of Lindsey Huddle, keeps her in Burlington, although "she joins me for a couple of weeks every year." Lane is a world-class triathlete of no mean accomplishment. Dunn jokes that when the Williston Select Board asked him how he chose the name of Hillside East's access road, he replied that "Well, my wife's name is Lane, and if you lived with her for a while, you'd know where the hurricane comes from.

"She's done the Iron Man in Hawaii for two years in a row, and last year she came in 11th in her class -- at the age of 53 -- in the Triathlon World Championships in Lausanne," he says with more than a little pride. Their 24-year-old son, Andy, has just moved to New York City to work for an Internet company, and daughter Samantha, 22, is studying at Sarah Lawrence College. The most important things in life, Dunn believes, "are family, friendship and adventure." He's passed on a deep love of sailing to his children, who join him on the boat when they can.

Dunn is a man so at ease in the present that it seems almost unfair to ask him about the future. He answers with the calm of a man who feels at home on deep waters. "I have the challenge of building buildings and keeping my boat afloat. I've got a few more buildings I want to do," he says, "and after that, who knows?" Without a doubt, Bill Dunn will still be walking the path to serenity.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.