Open Space Task Force Recommendations Approved

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Wednesday November 23, 2016

Fall lingered just a bit longer this year, with pockets of warmth scattered between blustery days, offering moments to enjoy South Burlington’s open spaces − soft walks padded by wet leaves and dreams of springtime vegetation. Thanks to the city’s open space fund, which tacks a penny onto the tax rate each year, a number of these natural areas, including the recent addition of the Underwood property will be preserved for the enjoyment of the community and the existence of wildlife, in perpetuity. While the fund has been used over the years for the purchase of open land, last March voters agreed to re-allocate one half-cent toward maintenance and upgrades to existing parks and natural areas. After this measure was approved, an open spaces task force was developed to determine how to prioritize the $1.3 million that would be generated over ten years, but which is available now as a result of a loan taken out by the city. The group’s work got underway in May 2016 and, at the November 7 city council meeting, they presented their priorities.

During their process, the committee reviewed and prioritized projects to receive funding from the open space fund including Wheeler Nature Park, Red Rocks Park, and the Underwood property. In addition, some of the committee’s guiding principles included making the parks more accessible, visible, and welcoming, ensuring ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, improving signage, and meeting deferred needs in existing parks. The priorities presented were divided into three categories: ongoing – projects currently underway, priority one – high priorities that can be supported by present funding, and priority two – the first section of which was grouped by order of priority.

Ongoing priorities at Red Rocks Park were identified in a comprehensive management plan study conducted in 2014. These include addressing trail erosion, water bars, and invasive plant management as well as increasing way finding, beach accessibility, and parking and traffic management. At Wheeler, bridge removal and replacement as well as trail widening will be necessary. Luckily, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) will continue to be actively involved in these projects which saves the city money.

The funding concept for these projects germinated in April of 2015, after the council had heard committees’ reports on the city’s open spaces and their corresponding remediation plans. Councilors began to wonder how these necessary improvements would be funded. The one half-cent idea was proposed by Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard. The city could borrow $1.3 million at current rates then, over a period of ten years, have the annual cost of the loan funded by the one half-cent at no additional cost to taxpayers. This is the proposal that came before the voters in March and was ultimately approved.

At the time of approval, the open space fund had a balance of about $300,000 with roughly $285,000 added each year from the one cent on the tax rate. The loan for $1.3 million was designed to allow the city to get a jump-start on projects rather than having to wait ten years for that amount (one half-cent of the one cent tax rate) to accrue.

The task force was made up of individuals with a long standing interest and experience with South Burlington’s natural spaces including Lisa Yankowski, Betty Milizia, and Sean Devine of the natural resources committee, Rebecca Poquette and Glenn Sproul of the recreation and parks committee, and “at large” members Larry Kupferman and Sophie Quest. Staff support was provided by Recreation and Parks Director Maggie Leugers and Travis Ladd while financial consulting services were provided by Greg Goyette of Stantec. The council unanimously approved the group’s recommendations, so residents can look forward to seeing gradual improvements throughout their open spaces soon.

For detailed information on all of the priorities, visit the city website, www.sburl.com.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent