April 10th, 2014
By Stephanie Choate
A large piece of farmland in southern Williston could be permanently conserved, provided the Selectboard authorizes the use of more than $200,000 from the town’s Environmental Reserve Fund.
The Williston Selectboard is considering a request to allocate $218,320 from the Environmental Reserve Fund to help purchase the development rights on the 146-acre Bruce Farm off Oak Hill Road, just south of Butternut Road. The fund currently has a balance of $475,131. The fund is used for the conservation and protection of land in Williston.
The town’s Conservation Commission and the Vermont Land Trust have been working together on the project, Senior Environmental Planner Jessica Demar told the board on Monday.
Last year, the Conservation Commission analyzed every single parcel in Williston, prioritizing the conservation value of each. The Bruce Farm property received the third-highest score out of all the parcels in town.
“It is number three on the list of every parcel we’ve ever analyzed,” Demar told the board. “There would be a lot of benefit to the town from a conservation perspective.”
The project would also be the third largest allocation of funds, compared to more than $300,000 for the Johnson Farm and $225,000 for the Lyon property.
In a memo to the board, Demar outlined the conservation value of the property.
“The farm contains the headwaters of the Allen Brook, is made up of soils of statewide importance, provides an important link to Williston’s primitive trail system, incudes significant wildlife habitat, and is within a significant viewshed corridor,” Demar wrote. “For these reasons, the Bruce Farm is recognized by the (Williston Conservation Commission) as an eligible and desirable candidate for (Environmental Reserve Fund) dollars.”
The farm is a mix of open meadows and pasture. Landowner Michael Bruce has already agreed to sell 14 acres of his land, which would be excluded from the project. Bruce would donate a trail easement, which would help establish a connection between the Isham Family Farm trail and Five Tree Hill.
If the deal goes through, no development could take place on the property. Bruce would retain the farm and continue haying it, but should he decide to sell it, it would still be conserved. Vermont Land Trust would also retain the option to purchase at agricultural value, an affordability mechanism known as OPAV to keep valuable farmland available for farming. That means that if Bruce decided to sell to a non-family member or non-farmer—which would drive the price of the land up and render it unaffordable for farmers going forward—Vermont Land Trust would have the right to step in and purchase it at its lower agricultural value.
The Vermont Land Trust has applied for a grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board—the trust’s main source of funding for its conservation efforts—for the remainder of the funds needed to purchase the development rights, $197,500.
Bob Heiser, with the Vermont Land Trust, said he expects this year’s grant cycle to be especially competitive, but said he thinks the project stands a good chance of receiving funding.
“It’s a really important piece locally,” he said.
He said the Vermont Land Trust looks for farms that help Vermont’s economic and agricultural health, and the Bruce farm fits the bill.
“We want to invest money in the farms that would be best for agriculture,” he said.
In November 2012, the board authorized $2,000 from the fund to split the cost of a property appraisal with Vermont Land Trust.
The Selectboard did not take action on April 7, but is set to make a decision at its April 21 meeting.