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Woodstock OKs Town Forest Lease, Land Gift

  • During Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014, David Schwartzman, of Woodstock, Vt., speaks against an article that would convey a town-owned parcel of land on Carlton Hill Road to Woodstock Union High School for use as an outdoor classroom. The article passed by voice vote. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    During Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014, David Schwartzman, of Woodstock, Vt., speaks against an article that would convey a town-owned parcel of land on Carlton Hill Road to Woodstock Union High School for use as an outdoor classroom. The article passed by voice vote. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson answers a voter's question during Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson answers a voter's question during Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • During Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014, David Schwartzman, of Woodstock, Vt., speaks against an article that would convey a town-owned parcel of land on Carlton Hill Road to Woodstock Union High School for use as an outdoor classroom. The article passed by voice vote. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson answers a voter's question during Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Woodstock — Voters authorized the Selectboard to lease the nearly 100-acre town forest to maple sap collectors and, in a separate warning article, to gift a 4-acre parcel to Woodstock Union High School for continued use as an outdoor classroom.

An estimated 120 voters who cycled through the town and school meetings at the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday also approved the town and elementary school budgets and all other articles that were up for discussion, with few dissenting votes.

Town Manager Phil Swanson said Woodstock has about 2,600 voters on its checklist.

Selectman Bob Holt said the board planned to have the 97-acre forest along Long Hill Road surveyed by a forester to determine the best way to move forward — including identifying any trees that might be more valuable as lumber — before opening the sugaring opportunity up to a competitive bidding process.

“The reason that we’re looking at this is because there’s a potential for quite a bit of income here,” Holt said. “The sugar maker that we talked with was talking about revenues to the town in somewhere around the $1 per tap range per year, which could add up to quite a bit of money over time.”

Holt said board members began considering the idea of leasing the land for a sugaring operation after they were approached by Chris Kendall of Kedron Sugar Makers and Kedron Valley Stables.

Any sugaring term is capped at 15 years, at which point voters would need to reconvene and decide whether to authorize another lease. Residents recommended that the Selectboard include a termination clause in any agreement in case another use for the land comes up within that time period.

Discussion was also prompted by the proposal to gift the 4-acre parcel — a sloped area on the other side of the Ottauquechee River from the school, at the corner of College Hill and Carlton Hill roads — which was donated to the town by a private citizen in the late 1980s.

The high school has been leasing it for a few years for use as an outdoor classroom. Students in math class, for example, study the sloping land’s angles; science students might use the surrounding trees to learn about horticulture.

But while the parcel is a short walk from the school, it’s technically off school property, meaning students have been required to get a signed permission slip every time their class planned to visit the space.

The high school having more land would also help to increase its land ownership ratio so certain projects would meet state regulations.

Holt said the land is essentially value-less because of its steep slopes and criss-crossing power lines overhead, prohibiting construction.

John Doten was the lone Selectboard member against the proposal, raising concerns about whether giving up ownership of the land would cause a problem if the town tries to widen the road in the future.

Holt said an easement written into a deed gifting the land to the high school would prevent that problem.

Elsewhere in the meeting, a lone naysayer could be heard as voters approved the $4.6 million town operating budget, up 4 percent over the one approved last year.

They also approved a $25,000 appropriation to be put into a capital reserve for future improvements to Vail Field, where frost heaves have damaged the basketball and tennis courts.

Assuming all other appropriations are approved during ballot voting on Tuesday, Swanson said the tax rate is expected to increase little more than a penny to about 33 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, meaning an $811 tax bill on a $250,000 home, an increase of $30 from the current fiscal year.

Some discussion was provoked by another town article up for a vote Tuesday, which would exempt any solar power installations from local property taxes on the physical infrastructure used to create electricity or hot water.

The article would apply to any individual, business or community system designed “for the express purpose of sustaining the power they already use and not for profit.”

Eric Wegner, of Woodstock Aqueduct Co., a water service with a solar installation at its site, said his company was surprised by a large tax bill on the installation, suggesting that when he reached out to legislators, they were surprised, as well.

Another resident spoke to the benefits of individuals’ extra solar energy that is pumped back into the grid, and Wegner spoke to the value of solar in helping the state meet its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“It’s going to be an interesting way to do it if we’re going to go back and tax these people,” Wegner said.

But some other residents, including David Hall, questioned the measure. While he’s a supporter of solar energy, Hall said, he felt some tax incentives on the books at the state level are enough for renewable energy developers.

“I really find it difficult to subsidize these people,” he said.

Voters on Tuesday will also elect town offices and school board members — there are no contested races — and decide 21 other articles on the town side, plus an $11.72 million budget for the Woodstock Union High School District.

Six of the town articles seek a renewal of five-year property tax exemptions for local groups. Most others seek funding appropriations for other nonprofits.

During the afternoon meeting for the Woodstock School District, which oversees Woodstock Elementary School, voters passed a $3.21 million operating budget, up about 7 percent over last year’s spending plan.

The budgeted amount to be raised by taxes decreased nearly $45,000, a 3 percent drop, down to $2.34 million. But the tax rate is nevertheless expected to increase because of a spike on the state level. The true tax impact will be determined when the state sets the rate.

Resident David Schwartzman complained about a lack of local control. School Board Chairwoman Paige Hiller agreed and said the board is doing its best with what it can control.

“Coming in below last year’s request … I think we’ve done a pretty darn good job,” Hiller said, “and we haven’t canceled any programming, we haven’t canceled any teachers, and we also initiated a new science program that I think is extremely necessary in keeping us competitive with schools and competitive with people who do have school choice in where they can send their children.”

The Woodstock Union High School District annual meeting will be held March 12, at 7 p.m., at the school’s Teagle Library, when voters will address bonds totaling $800,000 to acquire real estate, replace the supervisory union’s roof, renovate the high school’s aging windows and change out one of two boilers at the school.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.