Thursday March 24, 2016
The Wheeler Homestead and accompanying nature park trails make up one of the most cherished spots to enjoy in South Burlington. The historic brick house is now home to Friends of the Library’s book store as well as Common Roots. In the spring and throughout the summer, the property truly comes alive with programming for children and master and amateur gardeners alike cultivating flowers, vegetables, and herbs. The view alone is enough reason to visit this gem during any season. Given these attributes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a task force has been formed to generate ideas around the preservation of the space in perpetuity.
At the March 21 city council meeting, members discussed the recently developed Wheeler Nature Park Task Force and approved the number of members and representation that will comprise the group. It was agreed that two members from the South Burlington Land Trust should have representation along with two representatives each from the Recreation and Leisure Arts Committee, Bike and Pedestrian Committee, and the Natural Resources Committee.
The impetus for the task force can be traced back to a discussion the council held December 21, 2015 regarding the December 6, 2011 special city meeting vote authorizing the city council to convey a conservation easement on Wheeler Nature Park. In the weeks leading up to the recent meeting, residents expressed concern that the council would not uphold the citizens’ wishes (70 percent of those who voted in the election voted to conserve) to conserve Wheeler Nature Park in perpetuity. It was explained by City Attorney Jim Barlow that the 2011 vote was not actually legally binding, but more of a ‘good faith’ gesture on the part of the city. After hearing from legal counsel and residents, councilors confirmed that conserving the land is, in fact, their intent and convening pertinent city committees to gather their ideas for allowable and disallowed future uses of the property would be a solid next step.
At their first meeting the task force elected resident Donna Leban as the chair. SE Group, the consulting firm who worked with the city on the Underwood Property has been hired to assist the group. Jennifer Kochman, vice chair of the Recreation and Leisure Arts Committee said, “The group recommended that the easement include all 119 acres (includes the land swap). The Homestead 11-14 acres will be treated separately from the nature park in writing the specifics of the easement.”
Kochman said the group had “general agreement that a third party should ensure that provisions are carried out.” Resident and South Burlington Land Trust President Sarah Dopp mentioned that Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner made overtures years ago to see if anyone would be interested in being involved with an easement. Two of the entities responded favorably at the time, thereby potentially reducing some of the legwork now.
The task force will also consider and evaluate allowed and disallowed uses on different sections of the property and will hear from different entities regarding community needs. According to natural resources committee member Betty Milizia, “there are at least four organizations that will be invited to a meeting to discuss aspects of the conservation easement that concerns the acreage around the Wheeler Homestead. They are the Burlington Garden Club, which takes care of the beautiful flower gardens around the Homestead, the Community Gardeners Association, made up of South Burlington citizens, Common Roots, and Friends of the Library.”
As anyone who regularly traverses Dorset Street can see, dramatic changes have already been taking place on and near the Wheeler property. The abandoned house that had been located adjacent to the park for years was removed with the city’s approval. “The house has been a long identified hazard and we were finally able to successfully remove it,” Director of Public Works Justin Rabidoux said. “Additionally what we removed as far as overgrown trees/weeds were invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, dead and storm damaged trees, and boxelder trees. Boxelder are a fast growing, weak tree. We will be replanting some red maples from our tree nursery and installing two new staff-built picnic tables in the area. We are also planting a wild flower plot,” he said.
While all of the task force’s meetings will be public, two meetings will be dedicated to public input. The group will present their recommendations to the council in June. City Manager Kevin Dorn added that the committee will come to the council with concepts around which an easement could be created.
Interested in learning more and offering input? The next meeting will be held in April. The date and location will be warned on the city website.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent