Editor’s Note: Nick, as a member of the Selectboard, was directly involved in the topics covered in this article.
While the Town Forest on Five Corners Road has received attention lately for a proposed AT&T telecommunications tower, another project has also been in the works: the sale of 26.8 acres to abutters Christopher and Carole Lang.
The area in question has been a topic of discussion for the Selectboard for many years. The Lang’s property is home to three ponds that are supported by an earthen dam that, in part, encroaches on the Town Forest. The ponds, and therefore the dam, have been maintained for their recreational value. However tree removal on Town property for dam upkeep and potential liability if something were to go wrong with the dam have been ongoing concerns.
The issue resurfaced when it was proposed that the Town Forest house the proposed AT&T telecommunications tower. The tower site would be a few hundred feet from the Lang’s property line, and concerns about ecology and aesthetics were raised. The Langs approached the Selectboard in 2020 wondering if the Town might sell a portion of the Town Forest to act as a buffer between the proposed tower and the ponds, and to resolve, once and for all, the potential liability issues surrounding the dam.
Municipal forests are defined in Vermont statute and managed by the Commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation:
… "municipal forest" means a tract of land primarily devoted to producing wood products, maintaining wildlife habitat, protecting water supplies, providing forest recreation and conservation education.
According to the Town Forester, the sale, which is being executed through an annexation, would simplify management and make boundary maintenance and enforcement easier. In addition, the area in question is steep and wet; it is too fragile for logging and is thus designated as forest reserve (i.e. not to be cut) in the Town's Forest Management Plan. As a result, it does not generate any timber revenue.
The Selectboard determined, after consulting with Forests, Parks, and Recreation through its attorney, that this acreage is not serving the Town as a municipal forest. However, the Selectboard still felt it important to protect the area. Deed restrictions were added to the parcel that, according to Selectboard member Li Shen, are “at least as restrictive as those on other Town lands, such as the Hughes forest.” Those include:
• No more than 10% of the timber being harvested in any 10-year period, and any harvesting being completed using horses or light equipment.
• No trees being cleared within 100 feet of any body of water, including streams, ponds, and vernal pools.
• No development other than recreational trails, which shall not be wider than 5 feet and can only be used for pedestrians, bicycles, and snowmobiles.
• Ongoing maintenance of the boundary pins.
• The Town’s right to inspect the property annually to ensure compliance with the restrictions.
The proceeds from the sale, which total $40,200 (or $1,500/acre), are being deposited into the Town Lands Maintenance Fund, which is the primary fund used by the Conservation Commission for the management of over 500 acres of Town lands, which includes paying forestry professionals, improving timber stands, controlling invasive plants, and conserving habitat.
While the $40,200 has not been earmarked for a specific project yet, the Town is due to update its 15-year Forest Management Plan in 2022, which comes with a cost. In addition, the Town has already started a large habitat restoration project on the Taylor Tract in Post Mills, which involves the removal of invasive plants and the planting of native trees.
The Taylor Tract is important as a floodplain, which helps mitigate the effects of heavy rains. It is also home to at least one federally listed species that – because of its fragility – I won’t call out by name.
The 5-year plan for restoring the entire Taylor Tract, as put together by the Town Forester, is estimated at $50,000, but the Conservation Commission has yet to make a recommendation to the Selectboard regarding the scope of the project. A more focused habitat restoration could come at a significantly lower price.
The Commission has already received two grants for the Taylor restoration project, plus additional money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jim McCracken, Conservation Commission member, reported that one grant is for $5,000, and the other is for plant material at $9 a stem for 700 stems, with an additional $1,750 for planting assistance.
The Town Forest was logged in 2016-2018, and the logging revenue was intended for Town lands maintenance. However, the July 2017 flood damage absorbed almost all of those proceeds and left the Conservation Commission with a restricted budget. The availability of an additional $40,200 dollars will give the Conservation Commission more flexibility when discussing the management, conservation, and restoration of Town lands.