Deer population hinders development plans (4/16/09)

Subdivision OK’d by DRB; state approval more challenging

April 16, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Development Review Board granted a discretionary permit Tuesday night to a proposed 34-unit subdivision off North Williston Road known as Settlers Village.

The plans the board approved, however, could change depending on what the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has to say about deer wintering grounds, on which the subdivision would be built.

Original plans from two years ago called for 49 units, but project engineer Debra Bell of Trudell Consulting said housing has been scaled back due to wildlife concerns.

Brothers Mike and Dan Fontaine are listed as the applicants on the project. The Fontaine family owns close to 300 acres of forest and farmland between the Williston Woods neighborhood and the Winooski River, in the area surrounding Chapman Lane. Much of that property is classified as deer wintering grounds by Fish and Wildlife, and the designation could pose a problem for the subdivision during the state’s Act 250 environmental permitting stage, according to Bell.

Bell said the project should be small enough, with adequate designated open space, to satisfy the state, but that has yet to be determined.

“We’re still talking about it, but these are the plans we’re bringing to the state for Act 250,” Bell said.

The Development Review Board granted a pre-application permit for Settlers Village in 2007, with units allocated for growth management last year.

Building in phases

According to Williston Senior Planner Matt Boulanger, Settlers Village is considered an “invisible” development, since none of the houses will be visible from North Williston Road. As a result, the project can have more than the seven units per cluster normally allowed under town bylaws.

The project would be built in two phases in two different sand pits owned and operated by the Fontaines. The first phase would include 14 single-family homes and a reconstruction of the road — currently used to haul sand — to the town’s public works standards. The homes could start to be built by 2011.

The second phase would begin after a second sand pit ceases operations in 2016. Ten duplexes, totaling 20 housing units, could be built immediately after the pit closes. These units have been designated as affordable housing in the plans.

Boulanger said the sandy soil is perfect for constructing sewer systems and dealing with storm water runoff. The soil acts as a perfect filtration system, Bell added at the meeting.

The plans also include 127 acres of designated open space around the development. Much of that open space is on farmland between Chapman Lane and the Winooski River. The Fontaines are currently in discussions with the Vermont Land Trust about a conservation easement on the property farmed by the brothers.

“It’ll always be farmland,” Mike Fontaine told the board. “Part of the deal with the Vermont Land Trust is that is has to remain agricultural.”

A canoe access site along the river will also receive an upgrade, according to the open space plans.

Wildlife concerns

The plans presented to the Development Review Board Tuesday night could be in jeopardy, depending on what officials at the Fish and Wildlife Department decide in regards to the deer wintering grounds.

According to the Fish and Game Department’s Web site, deer wintering grounds most often occur in mature softwood forests where food is available during Vermont’s harsh winters.

Bell told the board the Fish and Wildlife Department asked the Fontaines to move the second phase of the project out of the second sand pit and into a different location. Bell and the Fontaines were not receptive to the change, saying it would require cutting down an area of mature forest.

Also, any substantial change in where the houses would be built would be considered significant enough that the project would have to start over at the pre-application stage and lose its growth management allocations.

“That’s the pressure they’re under,” Boulanger said.

Mike Fontaine said he sees deer in the woods and fields of his property in the winter, but argued that there are hundreds of acres for the wildlife to roam.

“It’s possible this whole project could get shut down by a dozen deer, which is crazy,” Fontaine told the Observer after the meeting.

Another issue for the state is the construction of a footpath through the property to the canoe access point. The proposed trail, designed in accordance with Williston’s bylaws, would follow a brook along the property from the Catamount Family Center to the Winooski River.

Fish and Wildlife officials are against the idea of hiking trails, which they say could disturb the deer population, according to Boulanger.

At the meeting, it was pointed out that a snowmobile route exists in the deer wintering grounds on an adjacent parcel of land close to Settlers Village.

“So deer don’t like people walking, but they’re OK with snowmobiles?” Board chairman Kevin McDermott asked.

“Let’s not go down that road,” Fontaine said, shaking his head.