By Julia Purdy
CHITTENDEN—On Wednesday, May 3, a public informational meeting was held on the proposed purchase by the Green Mountain National Forest of 2,052 acres in the town of Chittenden, currently owned by Blue Ridge Properties LLC. Presenters were Trust for Public Lands Project Manager Kate Wanner and District Ranger Chris Mattrick from the U.S. Forest Service, Rochester District. The meeting was moderated by Bob Baird.
The meeting hall at the Barstow elementary school was filled nearly to capacity.
Kate Wanner opened the meeting by explaining that the nonprofit trust’s mission is to “protect land for people,” with two main focuses in Vermont: community forests and the Green Mountain National Forest. The trust does not own land but partners with public entities as an intermediary purchaser to acquire and conserve lands. The new Jim Jeffords State Forest was one of its projects.
Wanner presented a PowerPoint detailing the reasons for the proposal. A color-coded map showed a sizeable chunk of forest land straddling the ridge above the Chittenden Reservoir, nearly surrounded by national forest, with the Long Trail passing through it.
The acquisition is named Rolston Rest, named for a trail shelter in that area. She said that the national forest has been considering the property since 1974.
The audience could clearly see how the acquisition would add an important segment to the wildlife corridor that runs along the spine of the Green Mountains, considered among the top seven wildlife corridors in the northern Appalachian chain, according to Wanner.
In addition, the Rolston Rest watershed contributes not only to Rutland’s drinking water supply but that of the Lake Champlain basin.
Other benefits would include the reopening of the area to the public for non-motorized recreation, although VAST usage will be grandfathered. Wanner noted the “scenic values” of the area and showed a chart itemizing the thousands of dollars spent locally by users of the national forest.
Blue Ridge’s huge sugaring operation would be discontinued, but sugarmakers interested in tapping trees on a smaller scale may apply for special use and forest products permits. If there is no interest, volunteers will remove all the taps and tubing.
Wanner stated that the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) is anticipated to exceed the current tax revenue on the property. A separate payment would be made to the school district, resulting in a modest reduction in the tax rate. In addition, surrounding property values will likely increase, she said. Anticipating a lowered tax rate, no impact fees are available.
Mattrick explained that the majority of the parcel would be managed for “Diverse Backcountry,” which manages for non-motorized backcountry recreation, wildlife and forest health. Wind turbines are not allowed. The existing four-season cabin at South Pond may become a stop in a proposed hut-to-hut system, managed by outside nonprofit groups under a special permit, or, if the camp serves no other useful function, it will be removed, according to Mattrick.
Wildcat Road will remain a town road. A memorandum of understanding between the town and the national forest allows the use of trails around the reservoir in the event of an emergency. A parking lot is planned for Rockwell Road on the Killington side.
Wanner outlined the next steps: the Trust for Public Lands, which has signed a purchase and sale agreement with Blue Ridge, will secure funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for FY18. The transfer to the trust would occur in the fall of this year, followed in 2018 by the final transfer to the Green Mountain National Forest. If federal funding were to stop, the trust would still “take the risk” on the chance of future availability of funds. The Land and Water Conservation Fund “ranks high” as a federal priority, she said.
Baird opened the question and answer session by asking members of the town negotiating committee to offer an informal report. The committee, composed of town officials, has been meeting with the Green Mountain National Forest and other stakeholders to work on a memorandum of understanding that outlines details of cooperation between the forest and stakeholders. The committee reported feeling happy with the negotiation process and expressed their confidence that the best use of the land is for it to join the national forest.
There followed a number of questions to clarify the PILT and determine the actual “bottom line” that the town would realize. The issue proved difficult to explain, so the audience was referred to the town office, where they can study the calculations.
Wanner assured the group that while the land value must be authorized in the federal budget, it has continued to rise over time, as many municipalities, especially in the West, depend on revenue from PILT. Because the PILT is expected to add revenue to Chittenden, an impact fee will not be paid to the town.
An audience member asked whether logging will be done in the area, saying that the ability to log might sway more voters in favor of the purchase. Mattrick stated that a project out of the Rochester District, the Robinson Integrated Resource Project, proposes logging within the Chittenden portion of the forest in the area of Route 73 and will eventually reach Rolston Rest. Another question concerned compensation for timber harvested within town boundaries. Mattrick said that the “Twenty-Five Percent Fund” would apply [which returns 25 percent of the proceeds from timber sales and other enterprises on national forest lands to states – Editor].
The Trust for Public Land is asking for support from Chittenden, Mendon and Killington. The proposal is contingent upon the approval of the town of Chittenden as having the largest land area in Rolston Rest. Chittenden voters will decide by Australian ballot Thursday, May 11, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. at the town office, whether to approve the proposed purchase. Wanner cautioned that if Chittenden says no, the trust will find another buyer, possibly on the open market. Those interested in more information may contact Chris Mattrick, District Ranger at 802-767-8396 or [email protected], or Kate Wanner, Trust for Public Land at 802-223-1373 ext. 27 or [email protected]
Wanner said her PowerPoint presentation will go up on the town website as well as the tax analysis prepared by Deb Brighton, an independent tax consultant. The GMNF Robinson Integrated Resource Project booklet that describes logging in the forest is available at the town office.