Sharon, Strafford consider contract to share Ashley Community Forest

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2020 10:43:57 PM

SHARON — Sharon and Strafford would share custody of a 256-acre parcel of conservation land straddling their town line under a proposal officials in each town are scrutinizing.

With an eye toward Special Town Meeting votes in late spring for the municipalities to take ownership of the trails-laced Ashley Community Forest, the Alliance for Vermont Communities will hold public meetings in each town in February — and possibly in April — to explain the proposed partnership between the nonprofit and the towns.

“It’s a contract that would be in force, if not in perpetuity, for a long time,” alliance president Michael Sacca, a Tunbridge resident, said Wednesday. “This seems like a way to set a precedent for the towns in the White River Valley to work together. There’s more reason than just ‘get it done.’ For future conservation, it’s important to look at geography and natural systems rather than political boundaries. This document could provide a model for protecting spaces like this that aren’t confined to one town.”

Of the $523,000 that the alliance has now raised toward acquiring the property and creating development restrictions, Sacca said, $150,000 from the Vermont Land Trust is contingent upon at least one of the towns taking ownership.

If one votes yes and the other no, the accepting town would own the entire parcel and pay property taxes in the other town. If the towns wind up sharing the land, all of it would come off the tax rolls. In 2018, the alliance paid Sharon $3,406 in property taxes and Strafford $3,679.

While awaiting the possible town takeovers, the alliance has applied to have the land designated for taxation at current-use rates. In addition to maintaining paths for recreation, an appointed Ashley Community Forest Board would manage the forest, including sales of harvested timber that could offset the lost property tax revenue. Each town would have two members on the five-person board, and they in turn would pick the fifth.

During the run-up to the first public meetings on the plan, the towns’ Selectboards are preparing to commission a lawyer to examine an agreement that the alliance and town officials all describe as “complicated. ” The complications include the fact that the land straddles the line between Orange and Windsor counties as well as the boundary between the towns.

“We need to flesh out how we go forward,” Strafford Selectboard Chairwoman Toni Pippy said Wednesday. “This is a long-term thing. We want to make sure we get it right. The (Strafford) board believes this is a great thing, but we want to get it right.”

Peter Anderson, chairman of the Sharon Planning Commission, hopes that voters in both towns come to see the arrangement as “a wonderful opportunity.”

“It’s a significant resource for both towns, recreationally and as a sustainable forest, which fits within the goals and the guidance of the town plan,” he said.

The alliance bought the property in 2018 in response to Utah engineer David Hall’s plan to develop NewVistas, a sustainable residential community on 5,000 acres spread among Sharon, Strafford, Tunbridge and Royalton near the Joseph Smith Memorial Birthplace. Two weeks after the announcement of the sale, Hall, who had accumulated 1,500 acres and was eyeing the Ashley land, abandoned the project.

Under the alliance’s ownership, hikers, skiers, snowshoers, nature lovers and school groups have been visiting the property, even though there is no official entrance for now.

“We’re looking forward to having sixth-graders from both schools getting up there soon,” Anderson said. “The idea is for them to see what critters are up there by their tracks.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

A five-member board, with two members each appointed by Sharon and Strafford and they in turn picking the fifth, would manage the proposed Ashley Community Forest if the two towns opt to take ownership from the Alliance for Vermont Communities. Peter Anderson is the chairman of the Sharon Planning Commission. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the arrangement for maintaining the forest and gave an incorrect first name for Anderson.




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