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Fayston debates habitat protection in new proposal

09/06/2007

By Erin Post

Whether a new subdivision proposal -- one that comes as the result of court-ordered mediation -- provides enough protection for bear and deer habitat on a parcel off Slide Brook Road in Fayston dominated discussions during a hearing last week. 

Landowner Bob Crean presented to the development review board (DRB) August 29 a plan for a five-lot subdivision, after meeting with town representatives and a mediator as required by Vermont Environmental Court. According to court documents, the parties reached a settlement May 16. Crean's appeal of a previous subdivision denial is on hold while the DRB considers the new proposal.

If the new application for the 16.5-acre parcel is denied, Crean may reactivate his appeal.

The hearing August 29 drew about 20 residents to the municipal building; several requested interested party status to take part in the process. Thirty-one residents petitioned the board to participate as a group called "Friends of Slide Brook Basin."

The town denied Crean's previous application in part because of "significant negative impacts on critical bear habitat."

The current proposal includes a roughly eight-acre lot to be permanently protected from development. The mediation settlement also stipulates 100-foot buffers for unnamed brooks and other restrictions involving barbecues, fruit trees and motorized recreation vehicles.

DEER HABITAT IMPORTANT

Much of the debate at Wednesday's hearing hinged on whether the new proposal improves protections for wildlife habitat.

Jeff Parsons, a wildlife biologist and ecologist with Arrowwood Environmental, answered questions regarding an assessment he completed for the town.

Parsons said he observed two beech tree habitats with enough signs of bear use to be considered significant: The first stand is contiguous with the Slide Brook Basin. The second is not connected to the larger basin, and shows a "lower frequency of active bear use," including fewer signs of bears climbing the trees in the past two to five years.

Although the state recommends a one-quarter of a mile buffer between development and "critical" bear habitat, Parsons said he doubted whether the state would apply the quarter-mile buffer for the second non-contiguous stand.

In response to questions from DRB member Margaret Torizzo regarding the use of the term "critical" to describe both stands, Parsons cited the character of the land surrounding the second habitat as well as the fewer signs of current bear use as reasons the buffer may be lessened for that particular beech stand.

The current plan shows home within 700 to 800 feet of the second beech stand, Parsons said. If the one-quarter-mile buffer were applied to that stand, nearly the entire parcel would fall within it.

For the first, more critical beech stand, one building lot "appears to be very close to the one-quarter-mile buffer," Parsons said. The new subdivision plan eliminates a building lot that was closer to the first beech stand.

Another concern for him, Parsons said, was deer wintering grounds. He said he observed signs of significant use and suggested the town require the habitat be mapped by the applicant.

"Deer are utterly dependent on wintering areas," he said.

WILDLIFE CORRIDOR HARD TO PROVE

Parsons told the board that there is a "strongly suspected bear corridor" through the area, and has been for 15 to 20 years. Proving that it exists, however, is difficult: Mapping a corridor is costly and labor intensive, Parsons said, and sometimes involves radio tagging bears or setting up fencing.

Fayston DRB member Chuck Martel noted that a report from a state wildlife biologist, submitted for Crean's previous application, also cited the probable existence of a travel corridor between the Slide Brook Basin and points east, including Camel's Hump State Forest.

But the applicant, Bob Crean, presented evidence that seemed to contradict those observations and reports.

Crean cited text from the Act 250 decision issued for Sugarbush's Intertie Lift regarding bear travel through the area. Experts agreed that bear access is from the "west over the spine of the Green Mountains," Crean said, quoting from the decision. He emphasized the lack of proof in regard to a travel corridor.

Martel suggested board members review the 1995 decision in its entirety as the subdivision hearing process moves forward. The Intertie Lift connects Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen and passes over the Slide Brook Basin.

CITIZENS REACT TO PROPOSAL

A representative for Sugarbush told the board that ski area officials will be following the Crean application closely. With property bordering the proposed subdivision, Jason Lisai, Sugarbush's vice-president of planning and development, said the resort wants to make sure its interests are protected.

"At this point we are somewhat satisfied with Mr. Crean's proposal," Lisai said.

Neighboring landowner Jean Towns also said the new proposal addresses most of her concerns, including the installation of underground power lines, and the granting of an easement to the town for an existing trail on the west side of the property. She suggested limiting parking to discourage additional traffic into Slide Brook Basin.

Rick Levey, representing the citizens' group Friends of Slide Brook Basin, urged the board to consider the wider implications of any development in the area.

He cited the town's decision on the first subdivision application, noting that the state characterized the habitat in the neighboring Slide Brook Basin as crucial to the survival of black bears.  The leader of the state's black bear management team called the tree use in Slide Brook Basin "phenomenal" and the frequency of use "exceptional," according to the town's notice of decision.

"All the adjectives that just go through the roof are used to describe this," Levey said, arguing for a broader look at why development may not be appropriate.

"As the town of Fayston I think it's our duty to protect this," he said.

The DRB continued the hearing to October 16. The board requested that the applicant map the deeryard as well as delineate buffers for the beech habitats on the parcel. DRB members also discussed contacting the state for an opinion regarding what buffers they believe would be adequate for the two beech habitats.

Contact Erin Post at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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