Ownership of woodlands to go to 2 towns

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2019 10:18:46 PM
Modified: 4/9/2019 10:18:44 PM

SHARON — A White River Valley nonprofit plans to donate an undeveloped, wooded 218-acre parcel it acquired last year to the towns of Strafford and Sharon, with the hope that they would oversee the land as a jointly owned town forest.

Officials with the Alliance of Vermont Communities say the Ashley Community Forest would be a valuable recreational asset for the two towns.

“We want to be sure this stays as a parcel for recreation and forestry in perpetuity,” Michael Sacca, a Tunbridge resident and president of the alliance, said on Tuesday.

The nonprofit spent $375,000 on the parcel situated on the Sharon/Strafford town line in June in response to land acquisitions nearby by Utah engineer David Hall, who hoped to create NewVistas, a 5,000-acre, sustainable community that he hoped would draw 20,000 new residents to the four White River Valley towns near the Joseph Smith Memorial Birthplace.

Two weeks after the sale was announced, Hall abandoned his plans for the Vermont project, saying he was “worn down by the drama” and opposition from Vermont towns.

The forest itself is “a very interesting piece of land” that includes old stone walls and the remains of a 19th century homestead, said Bob Linck, a regional director of the Vermont Land Trust, which helped purchase the property.

“It kind of tells the story of Vermont in a way,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful piece of land and something the community will be proud of and able to shepherd through time.”

The alliance now hopes to place a conservation easement on the community forest that would allow for forestry, agriculture and more forms of recreation.

Linck said it’s also likely that a system of trails will be developed from existing logging roads to connect the land to nearby conservation properties, including the neighboring Manning and Robinson farms.

There is at least one large question hanging over the donation: exactly how the two towns would co-manage the forest.

Legally, neighboring towns have teamed up to operate transfer stations and fund infrastructure projects. But as far as owning a town forest, “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that,” Linck said.

Sacca said the alliance is working with the two towns and other nonprofits to draft a legal framework that would support the co-ownership proposal.

One idea is to form a two-town committee that would oversee the forest’s care alongside conservation groups and the alliance.

It’s important that the forest not be split in two, Sacca said.

Such a move could stall the project by forcing the alliance to seek a subdivision, which entails a regulatory review, he said.

“The idea is that we would like to see this conserved in perpetuity as a single parcel,” he said.

Officials in both towns have expressed support for the donation, but say they’re awaiting further details before formally signing off.

“As a board, it sounds really good. We didn’t have any reason why we wouldn’t want this to happen,” said Strafford Selectboard Chairwoman Toni Pippy.

That’s partially because neither Strafford nor Sharon are expected to contribute funds to maintain the forest, she said.

The three-member Sharon Selectboard also said they would support “the overall project,” according to minutes of its March 18 meeting.

The South Royalton-based alliance in 2018 paid $3,406 in taxes to Sharon and $3,679 to Strafford, much of it for education.

If the towns take ownership of the Ashley parcel, it would go off the tax rolls, meaning each would forego about $1,000 a year in municipal taxes, according to the alliance.

However, a 2016 assessment found that its timber is worth $36,675, and the forest could continue to grow $1,044 of lumber yearly for the next two decades.

The alliance is also raising money to create a management fund. It hopes to provide $20,000 to create a forest management plan and begin maintenance of the property.

Once details of the donation are finalized, the alliance hopes to hold several community forums to receive input from the public, Sacca said.

It’s likely that both Sharon and Strafford will seek approval from the voters before taking ownership.

Special Town Meetings could be scheduled in the fall, he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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