By Luke Baynes
The Williston Selectboard authorized the expenditure of up to $2,250 from the town’s Environmental Reserve Fund for a farm easement appraisal of the Bruce Farm on Oak Hill Road.
The appraisal cost will be matched by the Vermont Land Trust, which is interested in establishing an agricultural conservation easement on the property. VLT would then purchase the land and attempt to resell it for agricultural use as part of its Farmland Access Program.
Williston Senior Planner Jessica Andreoletti told the Selectboard on Monday that the Williston Conservation Commission recommended the approval of the project. She explained that preserving the Bruce Farm for agricultural use is consistent with the objectives of the Williston Comprehensive Plan, which stresses the importance of preserving scenic viewsheds, water resources and trail networks.
“Between the view, the water resources and the trails, and keeping it a working landscape in this area of town that lends itself well to small, diversified farms, it seems like a great location,” Andreoletti said.
Prior to approving the Environmental Reserve Fund expenditure, the Selectboard debated the formalization of a policy that would provide guidelines for use of capital set aside in the ERF.
Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire stressed the importance of soliciting feedback from the Conservation Commission prior to a Selectboard vote on ERF expenditures. He pointed to a controversial Selectboard decision in 1994, in which the board didn’t consult with the Conservation Commission prior to using ERF monies for the purchase of 24 acres of land behind the Town Hall from Warren Lyon.
The former Lyon property, which has a 16-acre conservation easement, was recently approved by the Selectboard as the site for a municipal solar project on the developable portion of the land.
Selectboard Deputy Chairman Jeff Fehrs, who served as chairman of the Conservation Commission in 1994, agreed with a proposed policy section that states: “Expenditures from the Environmental Reserve Fund must be approved by a majority vote of the Selectboard at a warned public meeting following consultation with the Conservation Commission.”
However, Fehrs took exception to the proposed policy section which specifies that “land, rights or property acquired by a town using such a fund shall not be sold or diverted to uses other than conservation or recreation except with town voter approval.” He suggested that the town adopt a more stringent policy than the state statute from which the language was derived.
“Under the wording here, it says we don’t need to go back to voters if it changes in use to recreation, and I kind of don’t like that, because if the original purpose was for conservation, then we should have to go back to the voters if any use other than conservation is being proposed,” Fehrs said.
No decision was made regarding the proposed ERF policy, as the Selectboard fittingly remanded the draft version to the Conservation Commission for comment.