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A Life: Richard W. Carbin; 'He had a gift for constructive change'

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    Rick Carbin, president of the Barnard Community Trust, prepares for a meeting at the Barnard General Store in Barnard, Vt., on Jan. 17, 2013. With donations ranging from $1 to $100,000, the trust purchased the store in 2013 to continue its operation. "The community has come together to support these stores," Carbin said of towns working to keep general stores running. "Barnard is a great place to try to do that." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

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    Rick Carbin with his son Greg Carbin and daughter Deb Carbin-Fox in Bethel, Vt, in June 2018. "I think private property rights were anathema to my father," Greg Carbin said. "Can you really own the land? It’s always going to be there in one form or another. It will be there long before you got there, and it will be there long after you’re gone." (Lisa Carbin photograph) Lisa Carbin photograph

  • Rick Carbin in an undated photograph from the archives of the Vermont Land Trust. (Courtesy Bob Linck)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2021 8:00:10 PM
Modified: 10/18/2021 10:59:08 AM

BARNARD — When Rick Carbin saw a problem, he found a fix. He arrived in Vermont after rejecting an ever more densely developed New Jersey and dedicated himself to protecting the land of his chosen home.

Born in Jersey City in 1939, Carbin always preferred his family’s small farm in rural New Jersey where he spent weekends and summers. He loved the nature, the open space, and the solitude that he found there. He caught “aching to be outside,” as his daughter Deb Carbin-Fox put it. He never shook it.

“Going to Vermont was his way of going back to his past, going back to the childhood he remembered so fondly,” said Greg, Rick Carbin’s son

Carbin, a driving force in establishing the Vermont Land Trust, died in his Barnard home on July 21, 2021. He was 81 and had cancer.

He left William and Mary College after one year to enlist in the U.S. Army and attend the Army Language School in Monterey, Ca., where he learned Russian. He served as a translator in West Germany. World War II had flattened much of Germany, and the country was free to build anything, anywhere — but it didn’t. Instead, Carbin observed a resistance to strip malls and he never forgot that development could be done right.

When he came home, he saw how a place can transform in just four years: the cities were bigger, and they had leached into the countryside, transforming it into haphazardly planned urban sprawl. “It struck him,” Deb said.

He returned to the U.S. in 1961 and completed his d egree at Rutgers University where he studied international relations before working at his alma mater’s Scheduling and Space Utilization Department. He and and his first wife, Ursula Crass, moved into a house on a quiet dead-end street in Califon, N.J., about 60 miles west of New York City. He always promised that they would move away “the day they bring the bulldozers to build a house over us,” as Deb remembers.

In 1973, the bulldozers arrived. Within days, he proved true to his word. The family resettled on 15 acres in Barnard, where he could permanently relieve the ache to be outside.

Carbin would take his children on meandering journeys through Vermont’s back roads with no end but exploring the pristine countryside. He never needed a map.

“He used to tell us as kids that he had a magic potion, that these roads were available to him in his coat pocket,” Deb said. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, his stories made an impression hard to forget.

His creativity was not confined to the magical tales he told his children. He could conjure up a pub scene from years before with a pen and paper, and his sketches crystallized the animals he observed outside. He taught himself to speed read so that he could better “devour” books, Greg said. Most of all, he loved a good mystery, and he dreamed of writing a great one.

“He was a writer and he wanted to write,” Greg said. In particular, he wanted to write the story of a gripping unsolved murder at Harvard. He had thought he could set aside a year to write it, but he discovered that he needed a paying job sooner than he may have thought.

Vermont Land Trust

Carbin took a position at the Upper Valley Area Agency on Aging. In 1975, he became the executive director of the Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission and helped bring affordable housing for seniors to Woodstock.

“I would classify Rick as a visionary. It seemed he had a gift for constructive change,” said Don Bourdon, who worked with him at the commission.

Bourdon, a native Vermonter, said he saw how Carbin’s outsider perspective and time abroad gave him “a better sense of what’s right and what’s not, and what’s important and what’s not.”

“He brought that to us,” Bourdon said.

More than anything, he saw how Vermont was “somewhat advantaged by being disadvantaged,” Bourdon said. The state’s economy lagged in the 1950s and 1960s. Most didn’t see a silver lining here, but Carbin had seen how “the pressure to change” in more economically robust regions had left the scars of sprawl, fragmented forests, and lost farmland.

To him, Vermont was a special place, an opportunity to “affect change before there was change,” Bourdon said.

In 1977, he founded the Ottauquechee Regional Land Trust, which would be renamed the Vermont Land Trust. Simply put, a land trust stewards a piece of land at the behest of landowners, ensuring them that it will remain open long after they die. Now, land trusts are a large and well-funded presence in Vermont, but in the 1970s, Carbin was pioneering a new concept.

The hard part was convincing landowners to take “a leap of faith” that a small, upstart nonprofit was the appropriate entity to look after their land long after they were gone, said Darby Bradley, a colleague who would later succeed Carbin as president of the Vermont Land Trust.

“He was a soft-spoken, understated guy, but he inspired trust. He inspired confidence,” Bradley said.

Carbin’s vision was successful. He and his colleagues would later find innovative ways to conserve working land so that Vermont could better support its agricultural lifeblood.

The land trust conserved only six acres in its first three years.

As of 2021, it has conserved over 590,000 acres, or just about 11% of Vermont.

Carbin thought of land in terms beyond one owner, one use, or one sale.

“I think private property rights were anathema to my father,” Greg said. “Can you really own the land? It’s always going to be there in one form or another. It will be there long before you got there and it will be there long after you’re gone.”

Housing and conservation

Carbin had an inside view on both affordable housing and conservation, and he understood how they could complement each other in Vermont.

“He was unique in this from the outset, he didn’t see land conservation in isolation. He saw it in connection to the larger community,” Bradley said. “He brought the rest of us along with him.”

And he didn’t confine the land trust to safe, non-controversial projects.

In the 1980s, the Vermont Land Trust preserved an expansive tract of land in Hancock, Vt., along with three acres of the property right at the heart of the town.

While it was excellent farmland, Carbin saw that it was a logical place for the village to build more homes.

“I have to say when we first proposed this to the Town of Hancock, they were totally opposed to the idea of affordable housing. They had an image of their mind of affordable housing that was not very nice, to say the least,” he said in a virtual event on the Vermont Land Trust’s history in 2020.

They also presumed that no one in Hancock would ever need affordable housing. Carbin never gave up on the land.

In the late 1990s, Hancock’s politics changed. Carbin had since retired, but the land trust was able to see his plans for affordable housing through.

The families that moved into the new homes were all longtime Vermonters.

“It only took about 16 years, but we made it. We got it done,” Carbin said.

Carbin’s commitment to open land and strategic development “came to fruition” when he initiated the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, Bradley said. Carbin united conservationists, preservationists, farmers, and affordable housing advocates behind the idea of a legislative fund for both conservation and affordable housing. When Scudder Parker, a state senator, looked at the range of witnesses arguing in favor of the board, Carbin remembered him saying: “I’ve never seen a group like this agree on anything.”

Since then, the VHCB has invested in more than 13,400 affordable homes and helped conserve more than 437,000 acres and restore dozens of community buildings for public use, according to its website.

Saving the heart of Barnard

Carbin retired as president of the land trust in 1990, but he remained a leader in his community.

When the Barnard General Store closed in 2012 after serving the town for 180 years, he very simply “wasn’t going to put up with that,” said Tom Platner, a friend who met Rick through his second wife, Sharleen. The general store was the heart of the small town where neighbors drank coffee, commiserated, and worked out their differences. Without it, Barnard would lose what made it Barnard.

Carbin started a nonprofit — the Barnard Community Trust — that eventually raised nearly $650,000 to purchase the store from the building owner and invest in its renovation. He and his neighbors ran the store themselves for four hours a day so that the town never lost its central meeting place while they looked for a new shopkeeper. “In a town of 950, that’s pretty good,” Carbin told the Valley News.

“He was an idea man. He would get things going and then step away, and he’d share his vision and get things moving and turn it over — that’s what he did with me,” said Tom Platner, a friend and neighbor who took over the presidency of the Barnard Community Trust from Carbin.

Later in life, Carbin and his longtime partner, Calee Simpson, took their own meandering trips over Vermont’s back roads. They always made sure to shop at as many general stores as they could. He would do all he could to save that “dying breed,” Simpson said.

As they drove, he told her stories of the land: how it had been farmed, how it was conserved, who had fought to keep it open. But he also noticed the little things, like the yellow coltsfoot quietly announcing spring’s arrival on the shoulder of the road.

“Rick loved the land,” Simpson said.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.

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