Sharon, Strafford will decide ownership of Ashley Community Forest next year

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2020 9:12:44 PM
Modified: 11/2/2020 9:12:38 PM

STRAFFORD — Residents in Sharon and Strafford will be asked to vote early next year on a long-discussed measure to accept ownership of the 256-acre Ashley Community Forest, which straddles the line between the towns.

Selectboards in both towns recently decided to bring the issue to the public in Special Town Meeting ballot votes on Jan. 18, and both boards are still finalizing the language of the question that they’ll put to voters.

Sharon Selectboard Chair Joseph Ronan said the date is a compromise for residents, some of whom wanted to put the measure up for a vote on Nov. 3, and others who wanted to wait until Town Meeting in the spring. In a Strafford Selectboard meeting last week, the board decided it would “be best to hold the vote on the same day” as Sharon, according to minutes from the Oct. 26 meeting.

The forest was purchased in 2018 by the Alliance for Vermont Communities, partly to save the land from being acquired by David Hall, the Utah engineer who at the time was proposing the controversial “NewVistas” development in the area.

The AVC always intended on donating the forest to the two towns, and initially suggested the towns take ownership of the entire parcel in a joint partnership, said Orange County Forester Dave Paganelli, a Strafford resident who serves on the Ashley Community Forest Committee.

But Selectboard members in both Sharon and Strafford disagreed, saying instead that they would each own only the section of forest that sat within their town lines.

“The board feels it is in the town’s best interest to own Strafford’s portion of the forest and to allow Sharon to own their portion. The board agreed to try to manage the land cooperatively with Sharon and to share the same Conservation Easement,” the minutes from Strafford’s Oct. 26 board meeting said.

In addition to the land donation, the AVC would provide $20,000 “to cover initial management expenses,” Paganelli said, adding that, in time the committee expects the towns will be able to pay for upkeep of the forest through the timber revenue it brings in.

“It would be self-sustaining forest and would never require a significant input of money from the towns,” he said.

He said the forest would be an ideal spot for recreational activities like snowshoeing, skiing and hiking. On top of that, the land could be used for educational programming for local schools, though the towns will need to discuss building a larger parking lot in order to be accessible to school buses, he said.

“There are two old foundation sites that are in beautiful condition,” he said, adding that the historic foundations are evidence of homes and old farms that once sat on the property.

Ronan said he was trying to stay neutral about the proposal. He said it was a “good project,” though it raised some financial concerns for him.

“Part of it is what the town wants in terms of property. Mountain biking and walking trails will cost more,” he said, suggesting it might be a better idea to set up a nonprofit to run the property. “We just borrowed $1 million to fix a road in Sharon. Doesn’t that suggest that any incremental budget requirements might not be such a good idea?”

However, he said, the towns will have ample time to discuss the project and any financial concerns in the 2½ months leading up to the ballot question, during which the Sharon board plans to hold more informational sessions for residents.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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