Conservation Easement Task Force Identifies Elements, Values, and Uses for Wheeler Nature Park and Homestead

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Thursday June 23, 2016

The city is working toward obtaining a conservation easement at the Wheeler property. Before getting into the legal aspects, city council created a task force to outline the important elements of the easement and to prepare a final report to share with the city attorney and eventual easement-holder.

The group, known as the Wheeler Conservation Easement Task Force, held a public meeting on June 16 at City Hall to share the work of the task force and garner more public feedback.

Wheeler Nature Park is located southeast of the intersection of Dorset and Swift streets and consists of mixed forest, grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, walking trails and the Wheeler Homestead. Community members visit the property to use the community gardens, participate in non-profit-run activities, or take in the stunning scenic views. The city purchased the property in 1992.

Why is the city doing this?

In December 2015, city council honored the December 2011 ballot and started the process of placing the 119 acres of Wheeler Nature Park into a third-party conservation easement. The 21.27 acres from the Highlands Development (JAM Golf) land exchange will be included in the new easement.

Shortly thereafter, city council created the ad hoc committee to identify city values, identify allowed/disallowed uses of the property, and, with the homestead in mind, determine if there would be two sections of the property with different allowable and disallowable uses.
The committee consists of two members from each of the following standing committees: Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, Recreation and Leisure Arts Committee, and Natural Resources Committee. There are also two members from the South Burlington Land Trust. The city hired a consultant, SE Group, which has been working with the task force, Recreation and Parks Director Maggie Leugers, and City Planner Cathyann LaRose throughout the entire process.
After months of work, SE Group’s Mark Kane addressed a room of about 20 people on June 16 with the project overview and the four major parts of the presentation; these parts were all outlined on easels with space for written comment at the conclusion of the presentation.

Baseline elements of the property

For those unfamiliar with the terms of an easement, Kane specified that a conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a Conservation Partner, which would permanently limit the uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. The landowner retains many of its rights.

The easement would be “in perpetuity,” in other words, forever.  

With a full definition of what a conservation easement would mean for this property, Kane listed six baseline elements of the property: recreation features, agricultural features, historic features, man-made features, ecological features, and scenic features.

Some of the written feedback from the public encouraged a picnic area, restoring the Wheeler House, allowing for otter and beaver dams, maintaining scenic views, and having a brass scenic overview map.

Purpose of the conservation easement

Task force members, citing the importance of not just conserving the land but also seeing the value of public access, drafted this purpose statement:

“The principle objectives of this grant are to: 1.) preserve a diverse and natural ecosystem within the Protected Property; 2) support the long-term professional management of the natural, educational and cultural resources; 3) facilitate public access that minimizes negative impact on natural communities, surface waters, wildlife habitats, and other conservation values; and 4) sustain harmony within the property while recognizing both the natural area and the multi-use Homestead area.”

Conservation values to be preserved

In assessing the makeup of the Wheeler property, the task force identified the following conservation values: natural habitat values; scenic values; open space values; agricultural values; wildlife values; historic and cultural values; public access and recreation values; educational values; forestry values; wetland values; water quality values; and ecological process values.

Uses on the property

The task force outlined two sets of conservation uses: one for Wheeler Nature Park, which consists of the 119 acres of greenery, pedestrian trails and scenic views; the other for the Homestead at Wheeler Nature Park which accounts for space for Common Roots and Friends of the Library, the community garden plots, and children’s garden.

The task force drafted these allowed uses in Wheeler Nature Park: education; maintenance and upkeep; hiking; walking; passive recreation; forestry and habitat management; dogs in accordance with city ordinances; stormwater features (with approval from Conservation Partner); and temporary structures (with approval from Conservation Partner).

What shouldn’t be allowed? These uses, as drafted, should be prohibited in the natural area: motorized vehicles; pump track (dirt bicycle park); dog park; permanent structures; mineral extraction; water extraction; alteration of landforms (with restriction of amount); commercial signs, billboards, outdoor advertising; residential and commercial activity; and subdivision or transfer.

Allowable uses for the Homestead are as drafted: community garden; municipal and nonprofit uses; community garden; Burlington Garden Club (or subsequent organizations); events permitted by the City; and structures related to existing uses.

Restricted uses for the Homestead include permanent commercial uses, and new roads, driveways, or vehicle travelways.

Public comments added to the list, such as allowing a path from Swift Street area to the Homestead parking or allowing maple sugaring in the natural area. There was a larger contribution to the natural area restricted uses list, such as prohibiting fires, stormwater infrastructure, cell phone towers, paved paths, and dumping, among others.

Conservation partners

A decision has not yet been made, but the task force is looking at Vermont Land Trust and the Winooski Valley Park District as potential options.

The Vermont Land Trust has conserved more than a half-million acres over the past three decades, including farmland, forestland and community land, according the VLT website. It would be a candidate well-versed in the issues discussed and display good stewardship, Kane said.

The Winooski Valley Park District owns and manages over 1,700 acres of natural areas, 22 miles of trails, 12 miles of shoreline on lakes and rivers, and 18 parks. The WVPD office is at Ethan Allen Homestead.

Both land trusts are invited to attend the next task force meeting; Kane emphasized it was not in the framework to pick a conservation partner but that this would be the opportunity to invite them to be a part of the conversation. Even when a preferred conservation partner is identified, the land trust would have to agree to the partnership.

There will be a task force meeting in July with a public presentation at an upcoming city council meeting to follow.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent