Richmond’s Gillett Pond preservation fund hits goal after federal boost

By Doug Phinney 

Community News Service

This past summer, the Richmond Land Trust learned it would receive $250,000 to move forward with its work of constructing a new dam at Gillett Pond. 

The funding comes from a congressionally-directed spending request — otherwise known as an earmark — from Sen. Patrick Leahy. This is the latest step in a years-long effort by the Richmond and Huntington communities to preserve and protect the much-loved Gillett Pond. 

With the federal money and past fundraising, the project has the $750,000 necessary to start construction. 

The pond, located just off of Wes White Hill in Richmond, likely started as a small body of water — the result of a dam built by the Gillett family sometime in the 1830s. The current dam was built in 1903 by the Richmond Light and Power Company, which subsequently left the pond sometime in 1910, according to the Richmond Land Trust. 

Starting in the 1950s, the pond was owned by a local Girl Scout troop. Following a 2013 state inspection of the dam, which indicated a possibility of dam failure, the troop was considering removing the dam and draining the pond. 

This would have been a blow to local community members, who see Gillett Pond as an important natural resource, said Richmond Land Trust board member Fritz Martin. 

“There aren’t a lot of stillwater features in Chittenden County, or actually the western slopes of the Green Mountains,” he said. “So it provides habitat and a natural resource feature that there isn’t a lot of, and it supports a lot of wildlife that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

“It’s (also) one of the most accessible quiet water resources around, so people can canoe, they can ski, they can ice skate, all just right off the road.”

The community support, along with a public campaign, ambitious fundraising and generous private donations, resulted in the eventual purchase of the pond and most of the surrounding shoreline by the Richmond Land Trust in 2014. 

While land trusts and other conservation groups are typically in the business of removing dams, Gillett Pond represents a unique situation where the existence of a dam is seen as beneficial to the surrounding area.

“While in general our goal as natural resource managers is to remove dams; to support the movement of aquatic organisms and to lessen risks of downstream impacts from dam failure, because of the unique placement of Gillette Pond, the restoration of the dam does not appear to pose significant risks in either of these respects,” Chittenden County Forester Ethan Tapper wrote in a letter supporting the dam. 

Replacing the at-risk dam has become the top priority of the Richmond Land Trust. In 2014, the trust, along with the Friends of Gillett Pond ad-hoc committee, began gathering some information on the cost of the project. 

“We estimated — at the time we were doing kind of a ‘shoot from the hip’ (estimate) — that it would cost about $350,000 to replace the dam … and so we thought that was doable,” Martin said.

After consulting an engineering company — and completing a more in-depth examination of the type of dam needed, and the work needed to get there — the Richmond Land Trust discovered that the cost of the project would be about $750,000, more than the Land Trust had ever raised.

Martin credits the communities of Richmond and Huntington as having a great energy and ability for fundraising. But in communities with a history of reasonable fundraising goals — where many projects can be completed with the aid of bake sales, silent auctions or raffles — raising $750,000 is a daunting task.

“We all went through a period of a couple of years of sticker shock. And we’re scratching our heads, saying can we do this? Do our towns have the capacity?” said Martin.

The first major break for the project came when the Richmond and Huntington town conservation funds contributed a combined $225,000 — $150,000 from Richmond and $75,000 from Huntington. But the group was still worried that the gap to the remaining funding might prove insurmountable.

So, the Richmond Land Trust made the decision to bring in some outside help. It hired Christine Graham of CPG Enterprises, a company specializing in non-profit fundraising support, as a consultant for the project. 

“(Graham) brought in a level of organization and discipline to doing fundraising that we hadn’t had before. And that was a tremendous help. It was still a huge goal and even with that help, we were wondering whether we could do it or not,” Martin said.

The following two years, 2018 and 2019, the trust raised about $250,000 for the project, putting it in the ballpark of $500,000 — the initial goal before going all-in on a public campaign for the remaining $250,000. 

“We had $250,000 left to go, and it was a stretch to do a public campaign with that,” said Martin.

This was around the time when the land trust became aware of the opportunity to apply for funding through congressionally directed spending — an opportunity that had only become possible last April, when Leahy, chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, announced the restoration of the practice.

According to Martin, the dam replacement seemed like a perfect candidate to receive funding, which usually seeks to assist projects that are close to breaking ground.

“We already had $250,000 in community funding, $250,000 from town conservation funds, permits in hand, and we had an ecological study of the pond completed by the University of Vermont. We had a historical evaluation, all the materials in place — the application pretty much wrote itself,” said Martin.

A few months later, over the summer, the Richmond Land Trust learned that the dam had been one of 11 projects approved for funding, and it would be receiving the needed $250,000.

“It was a period of just a few months that our fortunes basically turned around completely,” Martin said.

Now the group is ready to move forward with construction. It is putting a bid package together through a local engineering company with plans for dam construction to begin this upcoming summer and be completed sometime the following fall. 

Work on the site will involve the temporary installation of a cofferdam — a structure that allows a small section of pond to be drained in order for crews to access the ground beneath — followed by the construction of the full replacement dam. The construction of the new dam will likely cause an increased water level in Gillett Pond. According to an ecological study of the pond, completed by Maria Dunlavey of UVM, the water level should rise by approximately 1 foot. 

The report, which describes Gillett Pond as an “ecological treasure,” estimates that this rise will impact the extent of the pond’s current northern and southern arms. 

It estimates that some of the area that is now shallow, emergent marsh in the northern arm of the pond will be incorporated into the pond, with the area beyond that, now part of an alder swamp, eventually becoming shallow, emergent marshland itself — and that the natural wetland communities on the southern arm of the pond will likely move slightly southward. 

Dunlavey’s report states that while there will be some changes that occur, waterlines on the rocks surrounding the pond show evidence of a water level 1 foot higher than it currently is. Altogether, it should be a fairly minor change. 

The project will also bring additional parking to the area in an attempt to increase the accessibility of the pond. 

“We have to thank Sen. Leahy’s office for being extremely helpful, extremely professional and helping us out with this. Then the other thing is, of course, the (town) conservation funds. This wouldn’t have happened without (funds) from both towns — Huntington and Richmond,” Martin said.