December 19, 2014

Survey uncovers Williston

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UVM students find town’s hidden nature

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston’s landscape holds many surprises.

An unusual forest features long views and trees that seem to be shedding their bark. Spear points unearthed along the proposed route of the Circumferential Highway show that humans lived here thousands of years ago. Before it became a commercial center, Taft Corners was a historic crossroads that featured several taverns.

Those were among the findings of University of Vermont graduate students after a semester-long survey of Williston’s physical, ecological and cultural landscape. The students presented the results during a meeting last week at Williston Town Hall.

The program is called PLACE, short for Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education. It aims to educate residents about their own towns.

Williston was especially ripe for such a study because it is a community in transition, a place that provides a contrast between intense development and bucolic landscape, said Walter Poleman, PLACE program director and senior lecturer with UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Generally, we survey rural towns,” Poleman said. “What was really appealing about Williston is that there is a lot happening as far as natural history goes that is not apparent, especially to people in the county who don’t live there.”

Williston, of course, is best known as the home to many big-box stores. But some 75 percent of the town’s 30 square miles is undeveloped and rural.

That came as a surprise to Jesse Fleisher, one of the 10 students who worked on the project.

“My only real knowledge of Williston was it was a place I passed through on the interstate,” he said. “I saw Taft Corners, and I thought that was all of Williston. I didn’t realize how much more there was. It turned out to be a pretty fascinating place.”

The PLACE program inventoried several categories of natural features, including soils, vegetation and wildlife. It also looked at how Williston’s cultural history impacted the landscape.

Poleman said the study revealed connections between those elements that may give Williston residents a new perspective on their town.

“We feel strongly that such an integrated and inclusive educational effort fosters both a sense of community and a sense of place – a potent combination that leads to a more informed and creative planning process,” said the project’s Web site, www.uvm.edu/place. The site goes on to say that such an approach may allow community members “to transcend the divisive nature of many land-use debates.”

Poleman acknowledged that place-based landscape analysis will not by itself solve the battles over development that have raged in Williston and elsewhere in Chittenden County. But he said the information may allow residents to find common ground through an understanding of how the town’s geography and natural resources shaped land use in the past and suggest its best use in the future.

UVM students worked with members of the Williston Conservation Commission during the months-long survey process, said Carrie Deegan, the town’s environmental planner.

Deegan said she and Conservation Commission members were already aware of much of the information gathered by students. But an interactive map showing natural features can now be accessed by residents through the program’s Web site, which she said may head off questions planners might otherwise answer about the location of wetlands and other natural features.

“Now this is something they can do at their own home,” Deegan said.

Among the natural features that might surprise even long-time residents is a wooded area near Five Tree Hill. Called a dry oak-hickory-hop hornbeam forest, it has little undergrowth, allowing visitors to see long distances through the trees. Shallow soil and a relatively warm microclimate foster growth of the unique shagbark hickory tree.

Another unusual find were arrowheads and spear points in the path of the proposed Circumferential Highway. They were dug up by archeology students surveying the highway route a few years ago, Poleman said.

The PLACE program started in the late 1990s as a collaboration between UVM and Shelburne Farms. Initially, a series of field trips was offered to Shelburne residents.

The first official PLACE project took place in Richmond in 2001. Since then, programs have been conducted in Thetford and Jericho.

The survey and analysis in Williston is just a prelude to the program’s community outreach effort, Poleman said.

Six Williston teachers have already signed up to learn more about the town’s geology and natural history during professional development sessions scheduled for next month, Poleman said.

Fleisher expects to work with the Conservation Commission throughout the summer. He said one site of particular interest is wetlands near Williston Central School. Workshops for the general public will be held next fall.

The hope is that residents will contribute to the study, sharing their knowledge of Williston’s natural and cultural history while they learn more about their town, Poleman said.

Fleisher said Williston, wedged between the Champlain Valley and the foothills of the Green Mountains, has a surprisingly diverse landscape. He said residents who learn about the physical landscape and cultural history will feel a deeper connection to Williston.

“The more knowledgeable and interested people are in their town, the better stewards they become to their land,” Fleisher said.

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