Williston looks at protecting wildlife from development
Sept. 22, 2011
By Adam White
Williston is exploring new environmental protection zoning that could have a major impact on the town’s future development.
A proposed overlay zoning district presented to the Williston Planning Commission on Tuesday showed that a significant portion of the undeveloped land in town serves as core habitat and travel corridors for wildlife. Members of the commission expressed optimism that the protection of such land — a task identified in a more general sense within the town’s Comprehensive Plan — will be easier to accomplish with the help of the overlay district.
“There is a lot of verbiage in the town plan that supports this, but it’s more ‘endeavor to persevere’ than anything concrete like this,” said Commission member Kevin Batson. “This gives us something definitive to implement.”
Environmental planner Jessica Andreoletti handed out to the Commission a series of maps — generated using data from a habitat assessment completed in conjunction with the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis program in 2009 — showing the areas in Williston that serve as core habitat and travel corridors for wildlife. Andreoletti said the maps effectively superseded older maps created by former town planner Lee Nellis, presumably from the examination of settlement patterns and cover.
“The Conservation Commission decided to stick with the science, because it’s more defendable,” Andreoletti said.
Brian Shupe, deputy director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, reviewed a six-page draft of habitat protection standards that included sections on purpose, review procedure and key definitions. Shupe — who is being promoted to executive director of the VNRC on Thursday, and has prior planning experience in Stowe and the Mad River Valley — said his role as advisor to Williston in regard to the overlay district is to “identify the threat (to wildlife) and appropriate policy choices the community can make to address it.”
“It is very difficult to just draw a line on the ground and say one side is great habitat, and one side is not,” Shupe said.
Commission members and the town’s planning staff agreed that restricting development based on the presence and activity of wildlife could prove contentious. Senior planner Matt Boulanger said that a number of recent development projects in town would have been impacted by the proposed overlay district, and planning director Ken Belliveau warned that implementing strict limitations on every area highlighted on the habitat and corridor maps would be difficult, if not impossible.
“To create an overlay process, it’s going to have to be sellable to property owners and the Selectboard,” Belliveau said.
He then suggested using further studies to prioritize areas of town that are most important to wildlife, and exploring options for protecting those areas permanently.
“The best protection is always if you can buy the development rights outright, and get it out of the mix totally,” he said.
Shupe agreed that the town should be prepared to defend its policies and subsequent decisions in regard to the OZD.
“If you’re going to restrict property rights, you had better explain how you are going to do it, based on sound science and research,” Shupe said.
Batson suggested revising the habitat/corridor map to remove flood planes, wetlands, steep slopes and other protected areas that would not be considered for development regardless of wildlife patterns. Belliveau agreed that with such revisions, “the map wouldn’t look so draconian.”
“If the whole town is covered, that could create a hurdle that you’re never going to overcome,” Belliveau said.
Boulanger proposed an examination of undeveloped property parcels in town, and how they might be impacted by the implementation of the overlay district. Andreoletti supported that idea, and added that habitat and corridor maps were likely to change over time with shifts in wildlife activity, creating the need for fluidity in any resulting policies.
No definitive action in regard to the proposed overlay district was taken by the Planning Commission, which is scheduled to meet next on Oct. 4.