Pond preservation project proponents have fingers crossed, hands out
BERLIN — A grass-roots effort to conserve the environmentally sensitive portion of a historic 40-acre farm that overlooks Berlin Pond has made significant progress during the past several months, but members of the Berlin Pond Watershed Association still have work to do and money to raise.
How much money is an open question that probably won’t be answered until after the Vermont Housing Conservation Board considers the group’s pending application for a significant chunk of the money needed to pull off what by all accounts is a complicated transaction.
Tom Willard, a member of the group who also serves on Berlin’s Conservation Commission, said Friday the group has asked for $200,000 — but has been informally warned to expect less given the number of competing requests that are also in the mix. “We’re working through that,” Willard said, noting the group is exploring other grant opportunities and just launched a private fund-raising campaign to help cover what best-case estimates suggest could be a $20,000 funding gap.
Willard acknowledged the deficit could be significantly larger than that, but the fledgling association is optimistic a series of transactions it once hoped could be concluded in April, will be wrapped up before the end of the year.
“I don’t think a closing will be before September,” Willard said, conceding that could change some, but probably not a lot, if the association’s attempts to close the anticipated funding gap are wildly successful.
They could be.
Willard said a letter mailed to all residents in Berlin and Northfield who live within the watershed to Berlin Pond has generated an “excellent” response and there has been little more than word of mouth outreach to those who frequent the pristine pond that serves as Montpelier’s public drinking water supply.
Even if September comes and goes without a closing, Willard said two things are true: The land isn’t going anywhere, and he and other members of an association that didn’t exist at the time couldn’t have said that nine months ago.
Last summer, about 40 acres of the old Crandall Farm was subdivided into four lots that were placed on the market for residential development.
According to Willard, two of the lots have a combined 1,800 feet of frontage on the marsh on the south end of the pond and the two others include sensitive wetlands. All are part of what the National Audubon Society has declared an “Important Bird Area” and the property provides nesting sites and habitat for raptors, songbirds and waterfowl to hatch and raise their young.
Willard said concern about the threat to the wildlife habitat and potentially negative effects residential development might have on Montpelier’s drinking water supply prompted the creation of the association even as three contracts were offered by unknown buyers on two of the parcels late last summer. One buyer withdrew, but two of the lots — including the largest — were heading to closing when three “conservation buyers” stepped up and the association persuaded two different members of the Crandall family to exercise their rights of first refusal.
Willard said that bought the group some time. One of the association members agreed to purchase one of the lots and hold on to the roughly 5.2-acre parcel while the group pursued funding to acquire it and most of the surrounding land that was for sale.
According to Willard, a second “conservation buyer,” purchased two of the three remaining lots — including the largest one — and later transferred them to a third buyer who is pursuing a boundary-line adjustment that will create a 22.3-acre lot the association is interested in acquiring and conserving a smaller lot — roughly 6.5 acres — it isn’t.
Willard said the latter lot — an upland field — is suitable for residential development and not considered a threat to the nearby wetlands or Montpelier’s drinking water supply.
“It’s complicated,” he said, explaining the buyer has committed to conveying the land the association is interested in as part of a plan to permanently protect it and most, but not all, of the surrounding land.
Enter Montpelier, which, at the urging of the association, has locked up the last of the lots — a 5.55-acre parcel — and is ultimately expected to add the 33 acres the association is hoping to conserve to the nearly 1,400 acres the city already owns in the Berlin Pond watershed.
Initially approached by the association late last summer, the Montpelier City Council unanimously authorized City Manager Bill Fraser to negotiate a purchase and sales agreement involving one of the lots based on privately discussed parameters in December.
Willard said Montpelier’s contribution toward the land purchase was $77,000 and the city was the logical owner for the property the association is attempting to conserve given its interest in protecting Montpelier’s public water supply.
“We think that it makes sense,” he said, noting that when the land is ultimately conveyed there will be easements guaranteeing public access for low-impact recreational uses, like hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
Willard said the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has agreed to hold the yet to be negotiated easement and has already approved a $2,000 feasibility grant for the project, which is the subject of a much larger application that is still pending.
While the association waits, Willard says it has been “brainstorming.” Preliminary conversations with Montpelier’s North Branch Nature Center have raised the possibility of constructing a boardwalk and a “camouflaged viewing platform” for birdwatchers who frequent the area.
In addition to the Montpelier City Council the project enjoys the support of conservation commissions in Berlin and Montpelier, as well as the Berlin Select Board.
The Berlin board last month agreed to free up $15,000 from the town’s conservation fund to put toward the project with a total cost of nearly $300,000.
While waiting for word from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, Willard said the nonprofit association is ramping a private fundraising campaign designed to address a projected deficit.
Residents who want to donate to the cause can mail checks payable to BPWA to P.O. box 828, Montpelier, VT 05601. Those with questions can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By David Delcore Staff Writer, email@example.com