Newbury Considers Buying Land

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2017

Newbury, Vt. — It sounds like a bargain — create a formal Town Forest by spending pennies on the dollar to acquire 635 acres including two local mountains.

But town officials say the Newbury community actually is sharply divided on the idea.

“It’s a big issue,” Selectboard Chairwoman Alma Roystan said on Thursday. “And we’re a small town.”

The Vermont Land Trust is cobbling together $436,000 from a variety of sources to fund the purchase and conservation of a 142-acre parcel that includes the top of Tucker Mountain (owned by Ted and Deborah Leach), and another 493 acres that includes the top of Woodchuck Mountain (owned by the Leach family).

In September, Newbury residents at a special Town Meeting will vote on whether to contribute $25,000 to the effort, under a plan that would see the town owning and managing the entire property as a Town Forest on both sides of Tucker Mountain Road.

Tucker Mountain in particular is a popular recreation spot for area residents, who make use of a mountaintop meadow for picnics, bonfires and other recreational activities, and it’s also used by bears, coyote, deer as part of a wildlife corridor that extends to an adjacent 116-acre parcel owned by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Both properties traditionally have been used for hunting, skiing, hiking and ATV riding, according to Bob Linck, central Vermont director of the Vermont Land Trust.

“That has, frankly, created some issues because it isn’t controlled right now,” Linck said. “Some people have cared for it less than others in terms of how they’ve used it, which has created frustrations for the Leach family.”

The problems include littering, particularly during bonfires in the meadow, and damage to the meadow and its access road created by vehicle traffic.

“Historically, people have frequently driven up to the top,” Linck said. “Now there’s some substantial erosion.”

Tucker Mountain was first placed under a conservation easement in 1992 by Phillip Leach, who died in 2003 at the age of 87. Leach was an Attleboro, Mass.-based businessman who co-founded a successful company in the precious metals and jewelry industry, and also had strong ties to Fairlee, according to his obituary. In 1996, Leach donated land to the Attleboro Land Trust to form the Phil and Ginny Leach Wildlife Sanctuary.

The proposed Town Forest wouldn’t be the only land owned by Newbury.

Mary Collins, a member of the Conservation Commission, said the town currently owns and manages a 39-acre forest on Johns Way, off Corey Hill Road; a 24-acre property purchased to support skiing activities off Halls Wake Road; a 20-acre lot on Wright’s Mountain; and a 69-acre property along Wells River.

For conservation enthusiasts, the chance to add 600 acres to those holdings represent a rare opportunity to leverage public and private funds to conserve a valuable piece of real estate that helps to define the town.

But Roystan said she hasn’t made up her mind.

“No one is disputing that it’s a nice piece of property, and a valuable piece of property,” Roystan said.

However, Roystan said, opening a Town Forest creates a whole new world of potential headaches and costs for the town.

“It’s a perpetual responsibility, so we have to think about whether we want the townspeople to be obligated forever,” she said.

The $25,000 being asked, she said, represents only a small fraction of the total expenses the town could incur.

“What about maintenance? What about upkeep? What about criminal activity there?” she said.

The town of 2,155 residents has a general fund budget of about $600,000.

Roystan said she’d like to hear more about the pros and cons of other alternatives, such as asking local conservationists to form a separate nonprofit organization to assume responsibility for the land.

The Selectboard, which has yet to take a formal position on the issue, was scheduled to meet with various stakeholders on Thursday evening to hammer out some of the details of the proposal.

Because there are different schools of thought about the best way forward, people on either side of the debate have been moved to disagree on various details — proponents of the deal, including several members of the Conservation Commission and a group of volunteers that formed specifically to advocate for the idea, say that the land will more than pay for itself by providing opportunities for timber harvests, sugaring and other forms of silviculture.

But the Selectboard has formed a forest management advisory committee, which during a recent meeting found that there was more supporting evidence for the expenses than the income.

“The town should expect a significant one-time expense for access, and then ongoing annual expenses for access maintenance, and enforcement,” according to the minutes of that meeting. “Income from either property is unknown at this time.”

Another area of disagreement is the fate of the properties should the deal not go through.

Linck said failure to close the deal will lead the Leach family to look elsewhere to sell the land, opening the possibility that the new owner could close access to the public altogether, and partially develop the property.

“I think the community has to be ready to say, ‘If we want this place to remain important to us and open to us, we’re going to have to get a handle on it,” Linck said.

Those opposed to the deal argue that because the land is already conserved, it likely will remain largely unchanged.

The details of a town-drafted forest management plan for the properties also are under dispute.

The Selectboard, recognizing a real split in public opinion, is not comfortable making a final call on the proposal, Roystan said.

Members are committed to sending the matter to voters, and have penciled in plans for the special Town Meeting to be held at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26 in the Newbury Elementary School gym.

“It’s too big an issue and too important an issue,” she said, “for the Selectboard to decide on its own.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.