Board approves firearms ordinance (Aug. 28, 2008)

Amended rules permit hunting on town land

Aug. 28, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard last week passed an amended firearms ordinance that opens — for now — town-owned land to hunters.
The board voted 3-1 to pass the altered ordinance. Jeff Fehrs cast the lone no vote.
Restrictions on firearm use north of Interstate 89 in Williston remain under the revised rules. And gun use continues to be allowed in most areas south of I-89.
But the new ordinance contains several small alterations that make it consistent with state statutes and one big change. Firearm use, which was not allowed in town-owned parks and recreation areas under the old rules, is now permitted in those places.
The ordinance allows the town to prohibit firearm usage in specific areas on a case-by-case basis. But the board did not discuss which parks and recreation areas, if any, would be posted.
Hunting advocates were pleased with the changes.
“This is a big win for both the people and wildlife of Williston,” wrote Frank Stanley of the Vermont Traditions Coalition in this week’s Guest Column (page 6).
One resident who lives near one of the areas open to hunting said he still has concerns.
John Colt, who lives on the east side of Brownell Mountain in Williston, said hunting near his relatively isolated home “is not such a big deal.” But he’s worried about those living on the other side of the mountain, where there is a denser concentration of homes.
“Each individual (neighborhood) is going to have to get together and decide whether they want the adjacent land posted,” Colt said.
A few hunting advocates and a state official spoke during the Aug. 18 Selectboard meeting, according to a recording of the session.
Mark Scott of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department said the amended ordinance was sensible. But he added that state game wardens will not enforce hunting restrictions on town land.
Carrie Deegan, who recently stepped down as Williston’s environmental planner, said the ordinance was changed so it mirrors state statutes governing things such as distances from homes and roads where guns can be fired. And she noted the Selectboard now has authority to further restrict hunting in specific parks and recreation areas without going through the cumbersome process of amending the ordinance.
“I realize that this doesn’t get you off the hook,” she said. “You still have to decide which ones you’re going to post and which ones you’re not going to post. But what it does is make the system a little more adaptive.”
Fehrs said he was voting against the revised ordinance because of safety concerns.
“I know I’m going to be viewed as anti-hunting,” he said, adding that he in fact supports hunting on some, but not all, town-owned land.
The issue of firearm use was first raised last summer after hunting advocates asked town officials to ease restrictions in the ordinance, which was enacted in 1997.
That initiated an off-and-on debate over the past year among town officials, hunters and residents who live near town-owned land. Hunting advocates argued for keeping public land open for all uses, including hunting. Residents and some board members worried about safety amid the increasing number of homes in the town’s rural areas.
The first proposal clarified the existing ordinance, which was vague on what constituted a public park or recreation area, and opened up those town-owned lands to hunting.
Then, prompted by opposition from residents, another round of revisions suggested by former Selectboard member Andy Mikell banned firearm use on town land.
But those changes were also scuttled amid opposition from hunting advocates and complaints from residents whose families had previously donated land to the town with the understanding that it would remain open for all recreational uses, including hunting.
Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said Tuesday that there are no plans to immediately post any additional land. Hunting is already prohibited at Mud Pond Conservation Area and one other town-owned parcel due to deed restrictions.
Macaig promised that there would be a chance for the public to comment before any land is posted.
Meanwhile, the hunting season is right around the corner. Periods for bear, waterfowl and small-game hunting begin next month. Deer hunting season starts Nov. 1.