Citizen funding needed for Catamount

Users will be asked to help close funding gap for community forest

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Users and lovers of the Catamount Outdoor Family Center can expect an appeal to their generosity this spring to help close a roughly $200,000 gap in the acquisition fund needed to convert the 393-acre property into a publicly owned resource.

The Trust For Public Land, a key intermediary facilitating the acquisition for the Town of Williston from the McCullough and Page families, has garnered roughly $1.7 million in commitments from a mixture of corporate, nonprofit, private and government grants. The organization is hoping to finalize the sale before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The total acquisition cost — including $1.6 million in land price and about $300,000 in legal and professional services — is $1.93 million.

“We have shaken all the trees of public and private grants,” Kate Wanner of the Trust For Public Land told Williston Selectboard members at their meeting last week.

The organization plans to launch a public fundraising campaign at the beginning of May. Among those who will be asked for donations are people who have participated in Catamount programs and events, members of the mountain bike trail advocacy group Fellowship of the Wheel and members of land conservation organizations like Audubon Vermont, Wanner said.

“That is how the community can participate in (the acquisition),” Wanner said. “We hope — we think — we can get that $200,000 between now and June.”

The Town of Williston has committed $400,000 to the purchase. The Trust for Public Land is confident in receiving a $200,000 contribution from the Vermont Land and Water Conservation Fund. But since that fund is dispersed on an every-other-year basis — and 2018 is an off year — the group is asking the town to front an additional $200,000.

The town would be reimbursed in 2019 assuming the state grant is approved. Wanner is confident it will be.

“This is pretty much spot on for their goals,” she said.

If the grant is not approved, the town’s Environmental Reserve Fund would be nearly zeroed out, McGuire said. McGuire anticipated the sale would close after the start of the new fiscal year in July. But he said the town “can make it work” if the sale happens in the current fiscal year.

In addition to closing the funding gap, another key element to work out this spring is the agreement by which the Catamount Outdoor Family Center, currently operated as a nonprofit by the McCulloughs, will continue to run recreational programs on the property.

“We set a date with the McCulloughs when we would have the license agreement done, and we’ve passed that date three times already,” Wanner said. “We were trying to get it done by the beginning of April, but we can get another extension.”

Some members of the selectboard were surprised that the town is committed to hiring out the Catamount Outdoor Family Center to run the forest instead of having an ability to seek other vendors.

“This does commit us to a specific group, which I prefer not to have seen, but it is a requirement that the McCulloughs have set down,” McGuire said.

The agreement covers a 10-year period through October, 2028. There is an option to renew for successive 10-year terms “provided that the licensee is operating the property consistently with the terms of this agreement and the town consents to such renewal,” the draft agreement states.

“I didn’t realize there was only one entity we were negotiating with, but that’s the reality of the situation,” selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said. “If we want Catamount to be preserved, we have only this one option of working with this entity.”

Town officials also flagged a clause that attempts to protect the outdoor center from costs and liability related to changes in allowed uses on the land. Allowable uses are under consideration as part of a management plan a volunteer citizens group is currently drafting. Among the uses not currently allowed on the property that the group is considering are dog walking and horseback riding.

Town Conservation Planner Melinda Scott recommended removing the protection against new uses from the agreement because, she said, it is already incorporated into the management plan.

The management plan will be up for selectboard consideration this spring.

“Any amendments to the management plan that have an effect on … their operations have to be vetted with them and negotiated,” Scott said.

Board member Terri Zittritsch argued that the town should have the right to determine how the property is used without having to negotiate with the contractor.

“It just feels like we’re giving them too much say,” she said. “I think we should have the ability to choose who does the management, and we should be setting the guidelines as to how we use the property … As a representative of residents, I don’t feel comfortable with this.”

Board member Joy Limoge credited the outdoor center for negotiating in good faith.

“What they are asking is not unreasonable,” Limoge said. “If you want to have this work, the best thing is to negotiate with them to terms we can all accept.”