Thursday January 28, 2016
The South Burlington City Council unanimously approved a draft resolution at their January 19 meeting that would re-allocate one half of the money collected from the city’s conservation (open space) fund annually for ten years to support a series of enhancement projects to the city’s natural areas. This is contingent upon voter approval in March.
The council considered and ultimately approved the open space and natural areas enhancement plan as presented by City Planner Cathyann LaRose. The plan is a compilation of each of the capital projects and planning projects that committees of the city presented to the council over the past 18 months following community input at the committee level. The plan outlines specific improvements needed at the following parks: Red Rocks, Wheeler Nature Park, and the Underwood property. The plan does not prioritize projects and thus, provides for flexibility in the use of funds.
This funding concept 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. Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard presented this option: what if one-half cent of the open space fund was used to fund projects to maintain the parks while the remaining one-half cent continued to be designated for the purchase of open space land? The city could borrow $1.3 million now, at current rates, over a period of ten years and have the annual cost of the loan funded by the one-half cent at no additional cost to taxpayers. This is the proposal that will come before the voters in March.
In April, Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner and Hubbard put together a preliminary, though not comprehensive list of projects that could be tackled and in so doing, have an immediate impact on open spaces. Some of their top picks included repairing trail erosion, developing a formal park master plan for Underwood, and completing all accessibility recommendations for these properties as outlined in the ADA report. Red Rocks improvements and maintenance also rank high on the list and include addressing parking issues, improving the beachfront, and restoring scenic views as well as targeted removal of invasive species.
Currently, the open space fund has a balance of about $300,000 and roughly $285,000 is added each year from the 1 cent on the tax rate. The loan for $1.3 million would allow the city to get a jumpstart on projects rather than having to wait ten years for that amount to accrue.
Resident and former city councilor Rosanne Greco questioned if there would be less money available to buy open land if the resolution is passed. Greco’s concern was that, if another property becomes available, the city could lose the opportunity to purchase it because there would not be enough funds. Greco suggested adding another half cent to the tax rate rather than taking it away from the open space fund.
Specific ballot language will be available on the city website and in the budget book prior to the March 1, 2016 vote.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent