Complaints trigger another look at hunting rules (11/12/09)

Residents seek restrictions at Five Tree Hill

Nov. 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

When local Brownies planned a field trip for last Saturday, troop leaders at first chose Five Tree Hill Country Park in Williston.

The 57-acre municipal park features a hardwood and pine forest and offers sweeping views of the Champlain Valley. A trail provides a 2.5-mile round-trip hike through the woods, an ideal jaunt for energetic second-graders.

But then Sarah Forbes, one of the Williston troop’s leaders, learned that hunting is allowed in the park. They moved the outing to South Burlington.

“The leaders are responsible for young girls,” said Forbes, who emphasized that she is not against hunting. “We need to be beyond sure that where we are taking them are safe.”

With rifle deer hunting season starting Saturday, town officials are poised to reopen the long-running debate over firearm use in response to those concerns. The issue underlines the friction created when suburban lifestyles collide with rural traditions.

Residents of Sunset Hill Estates near Five Tree Hill and other regular users are lobbying for a ban on hunting in the park. The issue resurfaced after neighbor Andy Freeman spotted town employees taking down signs that seemed to forbid hunting there.

Freeman said he is neither pro- nor anti-hunting, but Five Tree Hill is not the right place to use firearms because of the park’s increasing popularity and proximity to homes.

“This is not about hunters’ rights, not about firearm rights — it’s about safety rights,” he said.

Williston’s firearm ordinance in general allows hunting south of Interstate 89 and forbids it north of the interstate.

But that’s where the simplicity ends. For example, hunting is permitted in the northeastern corner of Williston. South of the highway, hunting is prohibited in Mud Pond Country Park and the adjacent conservation area because of easements on the parcels held by The Nature Conservatory.

State law also plays into the rules. For example, even though hunting is allowed in Five Tree Hill, under Vermont statute guns cannot be fired within 500 feet of a residence, putting parts of the park off-limits to hunters.

The confusing web of state laws, local rules and deed restrictions attached to land sold or donated to the town over the years flummoxed the Williston Selectboard when it debated the ordinance in 2007 and 2008.

The board initially considered a proposal to permit hunting on all town-owned land, then discussed banning firearm use on some municipal land.

It finally settled last year on mostly minor revisions that made the ordinance consistent with state laws and included a clause allowing the Selectboard to post land on a case-by-case basis.

Hunting pros and cons

During each round of the debate, advocates argued that hunting was also a form of recreation and they, too, had a right to use public land.

Tom Blair, president of the North County Sportsman’s Club in Williston, said the vast majority of hunters certainly care about safety, and try to comply with state and local rules.

Hikers and hunters can co-exist, he said. Hunters who spot many other people in an area tend to move on rather than risk an accident.

“Both have to be careful and cognizant of the other,” Blair said.

But those who want more restriction on hunting assert more no-hunting zones are needed in an increasingly suburbanized town.

Forbes sent e-mails to all five Selectboard members saying it was “a shame” that her Brownie outing couldn’t take place in Williston.

“There are plenty of more remote areas for hunters to go without using a trail that is frequented by children and families and is close to homes,” she wrote.

Alice Fothergill, who lives across town in the Southridge subdivision, said she sometimes hikes with her children at Five Tree Hill but avoids the woods during fall hunting season. While noting that hunting is OK with her, she says she just wants a place her family can go without worrying about gunfire.

Ted Samuelsen, who lives near Five Tree Hill, also likes to walk the trail with his wife and two children. He skips hikes in the woods during hunting season but has a live-and-let-live take on the situation.

“My attitude is that it’s deer season,” he said. “Let the hunters enjoy it, too.”

Signs of changes

Freeman said the no-hunting signs had been posted at Five Tree Hill since they moved to their home nine years ago. Now that the signs are gone, he worries more hunters will show up but hikers may still assume it is a no-hunting zone.

Jessica Andreoletti, a town planner who along with the Conservation Commission oversees undeveloped town-owned recreation areas, said the signs dated back to 2001 and 2007. They were therefore no longer valid for regulating hunting because state law requires land to be reposted each year.

That made it important to remove the out-of-date signs because they could give hikers “a false sense of security” and create dangerous confusion.

The Williston Conservation Commission last week recommended that hunting be prohibited in Five Tree Hill County Park because the park is so heavily used by those participating in other forms of recreation.

The Selectboard is slated to discuss that recommendation as well as residents’ requests to post Five Tree Hill during its next meeting on Nov. 16.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he would recommend that the board hold a public hearing warned in advance before making any changes. That could delay changes until after the rifle hunting season ends. But McGuire acknowledged the board could decide to forgo the hearing and instead order land be immediately posted.

HUNTING RULES

Here is a summary of where firearms can and can’t be used in Williston:

Permitted

· South of Interstate 89, unless otherwise prohibited under town rules or state law.

· The northeast corner of town. Visit www.town.williston.vt.us for a detailed description.

· In undeveloped town-owned recreation areas, including Five Tree Hill and Brownell Mountain.

Prohibited

· North of I-89, with the exception noted above.

· Mud Pond Country Park and adjacent conservation area.

· Within 500 feet of any building.