Conservation Plan in the Works for Wheeler

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Thursday January 04, 2018

The Wheeler Nature Park is home to some of the most stunning, unobstructed views in the city and the Wheeler Conservation Easement Task Force wants to make sure it stays that way by preserving its land and homestead in perpetuity. The group, chaired by Donna Leban, began meeting in 2016 and at the January 2 council meeting, she and fellow task force members presented their final report. The report provides a road map for acquiring a conservation easement on the 119-acre park, should the city decide to move in that direction.

Wheeler Nature Park was purchased by the City of South Burlington in 1992. In 2011, the residents of the city voted to exchange 7.25 acres of the park for 21.27 acres of adjacent land owned by JAM Golf then called the Wheeler Nature Park Connection Parcel. This vote, although it was later deemed to not be legally binding, called for the city council, as part of the agreement, to place the “new” Wheeler Nature Park into a third-party conservation easement to protect the park in perpetuity. The city worked to revise the management plan for the park between 2011 and 2015.

To protect the land, the council formed a Conservation Easement Task Force in 2016, and hired the SE Group from Burlington, to assist in the process. The group, with representation from the Natural Resources, Recreation and Parks, Bike/Pedestrian Committees, the South Burlington Land Trust, and city staff, was tasked with formulating parameters for consideration in establishing a permanent conservation easement for Wheeler Nature Park. Its purpose was to assure that the long-term use and benefit of the park remains true to the original purpose of its acquisition and meets the needs of the residents of South Burlington.

The task force’s desire is to preserve the natural ecosystem within the protected property and minimize negative impacts on wildlife and surface waters via the easement. Public access would continue to be allowed to both the natural areas and homestead, and the task force created a list of both allowable and prohibited uses for each. Some of the allowed uses for the natural area include maintenance, temporary structures, and passive recreation like hiking and walking. Dogs would still be allowed on leash. Motorized vehicles, permanent structures, water and mineral extraction, a designated dog park, and wind and solar facilities would be prohibited. For the homestead, some of the allowed uses would be community/municipal and non-profit uses and events permitted by the city, while permanent commercial uses, new roads or driveways and designated parking areas would be prohibited.

If the city council decides to move forward in the pursuit of an easement, the next step would be to choose a conservation partner. The task force has interviewed and narrowed the choices to two local options, the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. After the conservation partner is chosen as the easement holder and its mission and guiding principles regarding land conservation have been identified, the attorneys would compile the information and draft the agreement in accordance to applicable state and federal laws. The agreement would then be formalized after a task force review of the conservation easement terms. An update to the Wheeler Nature Park management plan is recommended, as well as the development of an historic and cultural resource task force, with the first directive including consideration of protections for the historic Wheeler building.

The council, by and large, was supportive of the task force’s work, but questions remained. Pat Nowak voiced concerns around allowed uses and the concept of perpetuity. She said she would have preferred the document had set a specific timeframe for reexamination of the city’s needs for the parcel. Nowak also wondered about tying the hands of future generations, but Michael Mittag said that was precisely the intent of ‘perpetuity’ in the conservation easement, to ensure that future generations have this land. Helen Riehle expressed that it would be even more important to have this land preserved in future years, given the rate of development in the area.

City Planner Cathyann LaRose assured the council that this plan was determined through a robust process. The group even walked the land several times to document the boundary lines through GPS. “If you are asking yourself, “did they think of this?” LaRose told the council, “chances are we not only thought of it, but spent 45 minutes talking about it at one meeting then again at the next.”

However, City Manager Kevin Dorn voiced some trepidation. He noted agricultural restrictions that are already on the land and the potential expense of attorney fees to explore the easement. Dorn wondered if the task force’s objectives could be achieved via the restrictions currently in place. LaRose said she believed former City Attorney Jim Barlow had prepared memos in regard to this item when discussions had occurred at prior council meetings and said she would be sure the council had all of the information they needed to make a decision.

Regardless of how the council decides to proceed, Leban stressed the importance of having a natural area of respite so close to the “hustle and bustle of the city.” Betty Milizia added that access to the views of the Green Mountains and Mount Mansfield is priceless for the public.

“That continuous vista,” Jennifer Kochman said, “is what Vermont means to a lot of us and it is unparalleled.”


SOURCE:  Corey Burdick, Correspondent