Power in numbers: Local communities discuss conservation

Staff Reporter

Good fences make good neighbors, the old adage says. However, in the case of six local municipalities, the very opposite may soon ring true.

This winter, South Burlington officials began talking with neighboring towns about a possible multi-community conservation partnership they’re calling the Southwest Chittenden County Conservation Partnership.

Tuesday night, Shelburne trustees listened to an informal presentation on the  partnership.

“The idea is that by working together, communities can increase the amount of land conservation that’s taking place,” Shelburne Director of Planning and Zoning Dean Pierce told the board.

He added the partnership could also help preserve habitat for wildlife, increase wildlife connectivity, improve water quality, restore and manage open space and allow for better access and management of trail resources.

As drafted, it promotes conservation through a combination of land acquisition, shared language around parcel classification and a common map denoting protected lands. It also discusses creating best practices for land stewardship, maintaining land connectivity between borders and engaging the public to join conservation efforts.

While none of the municipalities have officially gained selectboard or council approval, nor is it required, according to Shelburne officials, discussions have also begun in South Burlington, Hinesburg and Williston.

There’s no set timeline, but it’s possible more definitive action will occur by June, South Burlington Project Manager Ashley Parker said.

“The cost of conservation, especially when you talk about land acquisition, is pretty high,” she said, adding, partnerships can help municipalities strengthen grant applications and fund greater conservation efforts.

Currently, each municipality has its own language for “partially conserved” land parcels, Parker said. These areas are protected for the time being, but can be vulnerable to changes in zoning regulations and classifications. Under the partnership, towns would establish a standardized map, as well as a classification system to identify preserved land and gaps where conservation efforts could be made.

Banding together would also enable municipalities to potentially work on larger conservation issues such as water quality across the region, according to Parker.

“Everything drains to Lake Champlain,” she said. “Us coming together and formalizing our standards for conservation will be really important in improving all of that.”

But first, the municipalities must come to a formal agreement and set priorities. This entails everything from visioning to administrative details like naming representatives and setting regular meeting schedules.

At the Shelburne presentation, selectboard chair Jerry Storey inquired as to how formal the partnership was, with respect to staffing, funding, educational outreach opportunities and the like. Pierce said it was his understanding the partnership was more informal than that.

“I think of it as, essentially, a collaborative effort that’s [collaborating], for at least some initial period, at a staff and committee level,” he said. “It’s sharing ideas, working together on strategies and so forth.”

Vice chair Jaime Heins said he was “very supportive” of the idea, and selectman Michael Ashooh said he loved it. Board members did not sign the accord at the meeting.

“You’re taking the broad path of cooperation among municipalities,” Storey said. “It’s like mutual aid for trees and animals … It’s wonderful to see.”

South Burlington, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston have presented the draft accord to their city council and selectboards, respectively, but none of the municipalities have made a final decision.

Attendees at the Hinesburg selectboard meeting where the partnership was discussed expressed concern about how to sustain the project. In the past, similar initiatives have failed to gain traction.

Hinesburg Director of Planning and Zoning Alex Weinhagen said he’d like to discuss that concern at the proposed conservation partnership’s next meeting. While he’s unsure how to ensure the group’s longevity, he thinks soliciting the support of Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission professionals could help. According to Parker, strong core leadership and funding will help determine the future of the partnership.

It’s easy to stay in one’s own municipal silo, but a partnership would encourage towns to “cross-pollinate” conservation ideas and tactics, Weinhagen said. “It’s something that … we find interesting,” he added.

Hinesburg’s discussions will continue at its future selectboard meetings. It’s possible the town could make a final decision as soon as May, according to Weinhagen.

In Williston, trustees are “open” to the idea of the partnership but want greater detail around its organizational goals, senior planner Melinda Scott said. It’s possible a formal decision will be made within the next month or two, she added.

Charlotte has yet to attend the proposed partnership’s meetings, but town administrator Dean Bloch said it seems like “great work” and is of definite interest. The town may bring the idea to its selectboard, but no timeline has been established, he added.

Calls to officials in the town of St. George for comment were not returned by press time.

Although the partnership is in its fledgling stage, Parker sees the potential for it to grow and amass community partners.

“One of the neat things about this group is that it’s a bunch of towns and cities that are coming together understanding that natural resources cross boundaries,” she said. With that in mind, she envisions local businesses, residents and even university students joining the effort to preserve the region’s untouched spaces.

“It’s really important to get the people involved,” Parker said. “You can’t have good stewardship or good conservation without the support, and even the help, of your citizens.”

But as Weinhagan said, the partnership would first have to officially form and establish itself before the community could contribute. Parker is hopeful that will come to fruition soon.

“We’re all learning from each other and I think that’s only going to make all of us better at what we’re doing in our own communities,” she said.

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