Council Agrees to Conserve Wheeler Nature Park

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Thursday January 14, 2016

2011 Vote for Easement Considered Good Faith Gesture, Not Legally Binding

The city council held a discussion December 21, 2015 regarding the December 6, 2011 special city vote which won approval for the city council to convey a conservation easement on Wheeler Nature Park. In recent weeks, residents had expressed concern that the council would not uphold the citizens’ wishes (70 percent of those who voted on the 2011 item voted in favor) to conserve Wheeler Nature Park in perpetuity. After hearing from legal counsel and residents, councilors confirmed that conserving the land is their intent.

At the first meeting in December when the draft comprehensive plan was being discussed, resident Abby Crocker suggested altering language in the plan to clear up any ambiguity around eternal preservation of the land. Crocker suggested altering the section that referenced Wheeler Nature Park from “a designated natural area that requires voter approval for any other purpose,” to “a designated natural area that is intended to be conserved in perpetuity via a third party conservation easement.”

At that time, Chair Pat Nowak requested that city council receive clarity around the 2011 vote from City Attorney Jim Barlow before proceeding. Barlow explained at the subsequent meeting that the city could not have, through a city vote, given voters legal authority to place a conservation easement on the property. Attaching such an item to a ballot is more of a good faith gesture, Barlow explained, that provides reassurance to the public, but it does not obligate the council to pursue the voters’ wishes.

Tom Chittenden said he supports conserving the area, and would be curious to find out what options the council has for allowable uses going forward - such as sugaring trees for educational purposes. Other councilors wanted to explore what a third party conservation easement might look like.

Helen Riehle wondered what language the city could have used on the ballot in 2011 to make the land conserved permanently. Barlow replied that they couldn’t have. “That’s a nuance the public may not have understood,” Barlow said.

None of the councilors expressed opposition to conserving all 119 acres and thought it would be a good idea to convene the natural resources committee as well as Recreation and Parks department to get their opinions on options. A February discussion has been tentatively planned.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent