A Catamount Community Forest Q&A

Observer courtesy photo
A view of Camel’s Hump from the planned future Catamount Community Forest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was submitted by Williston Conservation Planner Melinda Scott.

Excitement has been building around the town’s planned acquisition of the McCullough property, aka Catamount, on Governor Chittenden Road. With this project, the Town of Williston, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Vermont Land Trust, hope to acquire one of the largest contiguous open parcels in Williston, to be conserved in perpetuity as a town forest. What does this mean for Williston? Read on for answers to common questions.

What is a community forest?

No two town forests are alike, but all can be loosely characterized as any forested lands owned by a municipality and managed for timber, water, wildlife, recreation, conservation, education and/or a suite of other benefits. Today there are approximately 168 of these town forests in Vermont, as diverse in management, history and culture as the communities they serve. These lands are called “Natural Areas,” “Community Forests,” “Town Parks,” “Country Parks” and “Conservation Areas,” among other names.

The naming style often reflects the management strategy. For example, Mud Pond Conservation Area allows pedestrian access only and has very limited management, whereas the Mud Pond Country Park across the road is open to mountain biking and timber management. While these properties feature different names and missions, they are both town forests.

How is Catamount different from other town forests?

Catamount Community Forest is unlike a typical town forest. It already has an established 20-mile trail network, and it has operated as an outdoor center for the last 40 years, providing year round opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking and running for local residents and visitors from Chittenden County and beyond. Besides maintaining the trails for these uses, the Catamount Outdoor Family Center operates a variety of programs, including summer camps and clinics, and a weekly race series, all of which are planned to continue under town ownership.

What other uses will be allowed at Catamount?

The Williston Selectboard appointed a citizens committee in July 2017 to develop management recommendations for the Catamount property acquisition. A similar committee in our neighboring town of Hinesburg took five years to develop a management plan for their town forest. This process, while long and challenging, resulted in a document that represents a complete picture of the forest and the community of Hinesburg, and outlines goals and objectives to guide the management of the property into the future.

The committee here in Williston is working hard to consider and make recommendations on a range of complicated issues in a very condensed timeline. The Catamount Community Forest will be managed for multiple uses, including recreation, sustainable timber harvesting, watershed protection, education and wildlife habitat. The property will be open to free public access for hiking, birdwatching, snowshoeing and educational activities. However, some proposed uses such as horseback riding and walking dogs will require further consideration to determine the best possible option for integrating them in safe and appropriate ways in the future.

The Catamount Outdoor Center currently offers a variety of free programs to the public, including local school outings and after school recreation, snowshoeing tours, birding walks and cross-country skiing for new Americans. Those programs will continue and likely expand under town ownership.

What will this acquisition cost the town?

The negotiated purchase price of Catamount is $1.6 million. An additional $300,000 will cover acquisition costs like title, survey, appraisal, environmental investigation, legal costs, etc. The town will contribute up to $600,000 to the project. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of the costs will be funded through public and private grants.

When compared with other conservation acquisitions, the Catamount purchase would rank among the lowest in per acre costs; in fact, lower than some transactions involving purchase of development rights only. The funds contributed by the town will come out of the Environmental Reserve Fund, which is specifically designated for conservation and cannot be used for any other purpose.

Annual maintenance costs will depend on the uses of the property. Under a license agreement, the Catamount Outdoor Family Center will be responsible for maintaining the trail network, while the town will maintain the parking lot. The maintenance costs for the town will be similar to other country parks, where improvements typically use a combination of town dollars and grant funding.

How can the town ensure the purchase price is fair?

As with any other acquisition, prior to a purchase and sales agreement, an appraisal is conducted to determine the property’s fair market value. Appraisals take into consideration many factors, including development potential based on physical constraints, proximity to water and sewer, desirable amenities nearby and comparable recent sales. The fair market value of several properties conserved by the town over the last few decades ranges from $2,000 to over $9,000 an acre.

Based on an independent appraisal, the fair market value of the McCullough property is $2.3 million, or $5,852 per acre. The appraisal is currently under review by a federal review appraiser to ensure it meets federal appraisal standards. In addition to being reviewed by an independent federal review appraiser, it will also be reviewed by the Vermont Housing Conservation Board prior to closing.

Why can’t the property be protected using Williston’s open space protection provisions?

It certainly could be protected this way, but with extremely different outcomes. Under Williston’s current regulations, subdivision of a 393-acre parcel would require that 75 percent of the parcel, or 295 acres, be set aside as permanently protected open space. That still leaves 98 acres that could be developed.

Local development regulations can and do change over time, with no guarantees that the 75 percent open space rule that exists today will be here 20 or 50 years from now. Placing the property under a third-party conservation easement, which the Catamount Community Forest will be subject to, ensures its legal protection forever.

Lastly, Williston’s 75 percent open space rule doesn’t guarantee public access. In a future subdivision, 295 acres would be protected as open space. However, that open space would likely remain private. The town’s acquisition of Catamount and the Vermont Land Trust conservation easement ensures that the property would never be developed and that wildlife habitat, public access and water quality would be permanently protected.

For more information about the Catamount Community Forest, visit the town website‘s Natural Resources/Conservation Projects page.