Proposal would salvage fraying relationship
By Jason Starr
The Winooski Valley Park District is making a pitch to acquire a town-owned conservation area in response to criticism from Williston officials about the value the district provides to Williston taxpayers.
“I want to change the narrative… between the town and the park district,” district Executive Director Nick Warner told members of the Williston Selectboard during a meeting Tuesday night. “We work for you. We should be controlling more land.”
Williston is one of seven member municipalities that support the park district, whose mission is to acquire and manage conserved land for public use in the Winooski River valley. Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire has called into question the formula the district uses to determine each town’s financial responsibility to the district.
Williston taxpayers contribute roughly $32,000 annually to the district, the fifth highest among member towns under a formula that is based on grand list value and population. But only a portion of one of the district’s 18 properties is in Williston.
“We manage 8 acres of land in Williston, and that’s been an issue in terms of the value we bring to the town, and I don’t disagree it’s an issue,” Warner said. “I’ve always believed we should play a larger role in Williston.
“Either this relationship is going to fall apart, potentially, or we can enhance it by doing what we do best.”
The district’s board of directors hired a consultant this summer, former Winooski City Manager Katherine Decarreau, to investigate different formulas for municipal support. Simultaneously, Warner developed a proposal to transfer the town-owned conservation area — a bog at the intersection of South Road and Mud Pond Road known as the Mud Pond Conservation Area — to the district.
He presented the proposal to the selectboard Tuesday and to the Williston Conservation Commission on Wednesday. Selectboard members said they would wait on a recommendation from the conservation commission before deciding on the proposal.
“If it is replacing something the town is already doing, I would start to lose interest,” selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said.
Warner described how the town would benefit from park district ownership of the conservation area. He said the district would commit to a capital investment to create a new parking lot that would serve the conservation area and the adjacent Mud Pond Country Park.
He also said district ownership would free up the town’s land management staff to focus on other parcels.
“Mud Pond Conservation Area has extremely high conservation values, is a prized area for recreational, educational and research purposes and a great fit for WVPD’s mission and operating model,” Warner wrote in a memo to the board.
He said the district’s board of directors is supportive of the idea.
A “reversionary clause” — customary with all district-owned parcels — would protect the town if the district fails to adequately manage the property, he said, by returning ownership to the town.
“That is what is held over our head with the other parks we own,” Warner said. “It makes us do our job.”
The town would also retain oversight of the parcel through its seat on the district’s board of directors, currently held by Rita Dessau.