Otter Creek Wetlands committee shifts its goal

We were concerned that, given the opposition of a number of landowners, the social cost of dividing the community over the issue would be too high to pursue this course at this time. — Otter Creek Reclassification Steering Committee

SALISBURY — An effort to petition Vermont environmental officials to award the state’s highest protections to the Otter Creek Wetland Complex has shifted course, according to Heidi Willis, chair of the Otter Creek Reclassification Steering Committee.

The committee, which assembled in early 2019, initially sought a Class I designation under Vermont Wetland Rules for the 1,500-acre complex of swamps running from Middlebury to Brandon. Approximately 500 landowners in seven towns and two counties own private property that abuts the wetland.

This past week, the committee announced it would continue to pursue Class I designation only for those parcels within the wetland owned by people or entities that support reclassification.

The wetland currently enjoys Class II protection under state law, a status that, among other things, provides for a 50-foot buffer zone around its perimeter, where development is restricted through a permitting process. Farming and forestry are allowed within that buffer zone and would continue to be allowed if the complex were made a Class I wetland. However, the buffer zone would be increased to 100 feet.

At two public meetings held in Cornwall and Salisbury on June 25 and 27, respectively, property owners expressed concern about how such a designation would affect the value of their land and their ability to use it.

Under Vermont law, a wetland reclassification effort must be proposed by an entity other than the state through a petition process led by a wetland reclassification steering committee, a group typically comprised of local citizens. A review process involving landowner feedback and scientific review is required, with a final judgment made regarding the submitted petition at the legislative level. During that process, only those parcels of land submitted for review by the wetland reclassification steering committee are considered for Class I wetland status.

Following the public meetings in June, the Otter Creek Wetland Reclassification Committee met three times to discuss community feedback.

“Committee members felt strongly that the Otter Creek Wetland Complex serves the functions of a Class I wetland, deserving a legal acknowledgement of all the community benefits it provides in the form of water quality, flood mitigation and wildlife habitat,” reads the committee statement issued July 31. “Although we unanimously agreed that the entire complex is worthy of Class I recognition, we were concerned that, given the opposition of a number of landowners, the social cost of dividing the community over the issue would be too high to pursue this course at this time.”

At this point, Willis said, “We are working to figure out ways to connect with landowners in an efficient manner to find out if they are willing and interested and want to have their land considered.”

The state of Vermont and the Nature Conservancy own substantial property within the complex and are amenable to reclassification. Willis said that unclaimed land in Cornwall will also be considered.

“Though we plan to pursue reclassification for only portions of the Otter Creek Wetland Complex, it is our hope that this effort to recognize the many public benefits of this ecologically rich area will spark useful public conversation about the role that natural lands play, regardless of ownership or legal designation, in supporting the welfare of private landowners as well as the common good,” reads a July 31 statement from the Steering Committee.

Willis, who also serves as chair of the Salisbury Conservation Commission, said the steering committee may have to propose a Class I wetland footprint that is not contiguous.

“It is our understanding that this would not hurt the strength of our application with the state,” she said.

“I just hope that we can raise the level of conversation around how we as a larger community look at lands that are providing a significant public good, but which are owned by private people who are bearing the cost and responsibility for maintaining whatever benefit that land is offering,” Willis said. “Is there a structure that would enable us to protect those lands such that protection would not come at a cost to private landowners?”

The Steering Committee will meet next to discuss public outreach around the project on Aug. 20; no venue has been announced.

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