Hunting banned in Five Tree Hill park (11/19/09)

Hiker safety cited in debate over firearm rules

Nov. 19, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday ordered a Williston park posted amid worries about the potentially deadly consequence of mixing hikers and hunters.

Signs prohibiting hunting will be placed around Five Tree Hill Country Park. The decision comes in the middle of Vermont’s rifle dear hunting season.

About 15 residents were present during an hour-long discussion of the issue. Most were from the Sunset Hill Estates neighborhood abutting Five Tree Hill.

“It’s a very small park,” Andy Freeman said. “It’s just not large enough to discharge a firearm and know where the discharge is going to go.”

The controversy over hunting in the 57-acre municipal park began a couple of weeks ago when neighbors noticed a town worker taking down signs that forbid hunting.

The signs were taken down in advance of hunting season when town officials realized they were outdated and failed to meet state requirements for posting land for hunting. They worried the signs could create a false sense of security for those who hike through the park while not legally preventing hunting. Town Manager Rick McGuire acknowledged that the situation posed a liability problem for the town.

Neighbors protested the sign removal with e-mails to Selectboard members expressing dismay. They noted the undeveloped park has become an increasingly popular place for families. One resident complained she had cancelled a planned field trip for the local Brownie troop because of safety concerns.

Under a town ordinance regulating firearm use revised last year, hunting is allowed in most areas south of Interstate 89 and forbidden in all but one area north of the interstate.

That meant that hunting was allowed at Five Tree Hill. But the ordinance also allowed the Selectboard to revisit the issue and carve out exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

At Monday’s meeting, residents and board members agreed that banning hunting in the park was the only prudent step given the safety issues. No hunting advocates were present to argue against the restriction.

But there was some debate about how soon the park should be posted and if the town should also consider banning hunting on other town-owned land.

Selectboard member Ted Kenney said with rifle hunting season under way there was no time to waste.

“I think I lean toward posting for hunting forthwith — meaning tonight,” he said.

Kenney added that it was unlikely hunters were heavily using the park anyway because they tend to stay away from areas near homes.

Board member Chris Roy said he supported posting the park, although he preferred to hold a public hearing before making a decision.

“I think there’s some very good reasons to post Five Tree Hill,” said Roy, who also chided neighbors for failing to raise the issue during last year’s debate over the firearm ordinance.

Several neighbors complained about a lack of clarity in the town’s hunting rules. Many said they had long believed the park was off limits for hunting.

“I liked the idea — up until recently — that I was safe walking through those woods,” Nick Hardin said.

He urged the board to at least post a warning sign at the park’s trailhead telling hikers that hunters may be present.

His wife, Sue, said no matter what the board did, it was critical that everyone understand where hunting is and isn’t allowed.

“It’s really important to make clear for people who are going to hike or hunt in that area what the rule is right now,” she said. “If it is that they can hunt there, then there have to be warning signs. There’s a lot of kids in those woods.”

The Selectboard voted unanimously to post Five Tree Hill and directed town staff to place an additional sign at the park’s trailhead warning hikers that hunters may be present on adjacent private land.

The board also asked the Conservation Commission, an appointed board that oversees the town’s undeveloped recreation areas, to review usage of other town-owned parcels and recommend whether or not to post any of those parcels.

McGuire said Five Tree Hill will be posted no later than this weekend. The task will be relatively easy because the town previously plotted the park’s boundaries using a global positioning system.

The Selectboard plans to further discuss hunting on all other town-owned land after completing the municipal budget in late January.