Conservancies eye Chester lands for preservation

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Sept.6 is shaping up to be a very big day for conservation in Chester.

A view of the Rainbow Rock swimming hole on a recent morning. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

On that Wednesday, the Vermont River Conservancy hopes to close on its purchase of land that gives access to the Rainbow Rock swimming hole and turn it over to the town of Chester.

And that evening, representatives of the New England Forestry Foundation will tell the town’s Select Board about its plan to raise the funds to buy more than 1,800 acres of land that would become what it calls a “community forest.”

The Rainbow Rock effort began when River Conservancy Assistant Director Lydia Menendez proposed that her organization would raise money to buy 1.84 acres on the Green Mountain Turnpike side of the Williams River if the town would take title to it and preserve access to the swimming hole.

Since then, VRC has raised most of the money needed to buy the land, create a switchback trail for a safer and easier way down to the river, cut erosion, built a small retaining wall at the bottom of the slope and possibly put a bench there.

But a grant which would have completed the fundraising did not come through and the deadline for closing on the sale approaches.

“We have another grant proposal out that could close the gap,” Menedez told The Telegraph last Thursday, “but that’s not a sure thing. The Chester Conservation Committee has raised about $2,000 and donations are still welcome.” To donate, go to the Conservancy’s donation page and select the Rainbow Rock option.

N.E. Forestry Foundation eyes conserving Tomasso property

The New England Forestry Foundation plans to raise funds needed to purchase 1,800 acres of land off Lover’s Lane Road from the Tomasso family and conserve it as a forest.

NEFF opens its properties for ‘respectful visits’ and is discussing recreational opportunities with the town of Chester. Photo provided.

In an interview on Thursday, Robert Perschel, executive director of the foundation, said that his organization is actively working to see if the purchase is feasible. Perschel said that the property is under contract, but the owners won’t keep it off the market indefinitely. According to Perschel, the contract calls for the deal to be done by the end of 2017.

“We’re at the very beginning of the fundraising stage of the campaign,” said Perschel. “We are actively working on this and we need to decide if it’s possible by early October. We need to know this fall that the pathway is open to us.”

According to its website, the foundation was started in 1944 to conserve forest land and practice sustainable forestry to preserve “the beauty, prosperity, wildlife habitats, and unique character of our region for future generations.”

“The foundation owns 147 pieces of property and has conservation easements on another 144,” said Perschel. “With 1.2 million acres, we have more land under easement than any other land trust in New England.” According to Perschel, the foundation uses best practices to manage forest resources while focusing on the property as a wildlife habitat.

Part of the foundation’s process involves gauging the support of the community, and in addition to presenting its plan on Sept. 6, the foundation is arranging a public tour of the property in late September or early October.

Chester Town Manager David Pisha and Executive Assistant Hance met with Peter Jones of the foundation last week to discuss the plan. “While questions still need to be asked,” said Pisha, “what we heard at this first meeting was very encouraging.  If what we were told should come to pass, this forest preserve could be a great asset to the citizens of Chester for years to come.”

Pisha encouraged everyone to attend the Sept. 6  Select Board meeting to “learn the facts.”

If the foundation is able to raise the funds to buy the property, the land would become a “community forest” available to the public. “We’ll ask the public what they want in terms of trails and other recreational opportunities and come up with a management and recreation plan,” said Perschel.

The foundation already owns Fox Chair Mountain Memorial Forest in Chester and Springfield. Photo provided

Asked about ongoing snowmobile access to the property, Perschel said the foundation has experience with snowmobile trails. “We have no problem working with snowmobile clubs,” said Perschel. “We’ve done it in other places, it just needs to be well-placed.”

According to Perschel, the foundation would hold title to the land and pay property taxes. Hance said the property is made up of several parcels some of which are in the current use program while others are not. The current use program allows properties that are managed along best forestry or agricultural practices to be assessed based on the value of its wood or food production rather than its residential or commercial development value.

The foundation already owns the Fox Chair Mountain Memorial Forest which was donated by  Esther Coke of Marshfield, Mass., in 1994. 4.4 acres of the parcel are in Chester with the remainder of the 55 acre forest in Springfield.

Rainbow Rock property closing and town ownership

Menendez told The Telegraph that she hopes to close the deal on Sept. 6 and immediately turn the land over to the town.

A planned switchback trail will make it easier to get from the Green Mountain Turnpike down to Rainbow Rock. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

“I suppose that’s possible,” said Hance, “but there is still title work to do and the board would have to review the requirements of the management plan before taking the land, so it seems unlikely. That being said, it shouldn’’t be too long after that.” Hance later said that the board would review the conservancy’s Rainbow Rock management plan and development easement at its Aug. 30 special meeting, but she still doubted that the transfer could be completed that quickly.

According to Menendez, after the closing, the River Conservancy will contract for a switchback trail to be constructed to reduce the slope from Green Mountain Turnpike to the Williams River from about 20 percent to about 10 percent. The path will be covered with gravel and engineered to reduce erosion.

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