Chester board: Public needs more info on Tomasso property study

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

A request for the Chester Select Board to accept a $20,000 grant from the Open Space Institute at its Nov. 7 meeting sparked a lengthy discussion around the question of the town owning the 1,800-acre Tomasso property in Smokeshire and the public’s perception of what is happening.

The area under consideration represents about five percent of Chester’s area. Courtesy NEFF

Town Executive Assistant Julie Hance told the board that the institute had awarded the grant to fund a 18- to 24-month “community assessment” around the question of whether the town should own the property. The grant requires a $5,000 match, but Hance said that the cost of the appraisal would meet that.

Last year, the property was the subject of a failed fundraising campaign by the New England Forestry Foundation and the $3.5 million tract went back on the market. After that, the town was contacted by the Northern Forest Center and the Vermont Land Trust to consider conducting a public process to see if the residents of Chester would be in favor of owning the land.

The process would look at the cost of owning and maintaining the land as well as the income that could be generated from timber harvesting, maple production and recreational pursuits including hiking, mountain biking and snowmobiling as well as hunting and fishing. Town Manager David Pisha told the board that attracting a large number of visitors – as similar recreation areas in the North East Kingdom and Killington have – is a way to grow the grand list.

Board member Lee Gustafson told the board that residents have been asking him why the town “is spending money on property when we should be looking at roads and other infrastructure.”

Gustafson pointed to projects like a new emergency services building and needed repairs to the Town Hall, which will be costly.

“That’s what I’m hearing on the street,” said Gustafson.

“We don’t want to say what the end result should be and then make it fit,” said Hance about the public process. “At the end of the day it’s not a board decision. At the end of the day it’s a voter decision.” The public process began in September with a presentation called “What is a Community Forest,” sponsored by the Northern Forest Center and the Vermont Land Trust.

David Pisha points to the experience of recreation areas in Killington and the North East Kingdom.

Pisha has said that finding outside money is important and if the deal was not attractive, the town could walk away from it.

“So we could be in 2020 before we ask the voters,” said Gustafson. “We need to find a way to let people know all of this.”

Board chair Arne Jonynas noted that while there are voters who may not like the idea, there are also many who look favorably on the purchase. The board voted unanimously to accept the grant to move ahead with the assessment process.

Chester resident Dick Jewett told the board that there is an impressive stand of maple trees near Chase Brook Road, and suggested that sugaring be considered for that area rather than a timber harvest.

Townscape presents plan, requests funding

Members of Chester Townscape, the group that restored the Hearse House and had been responsible for plantings to beautify the town, came before the board to ask for help with projects around the information booth and gazebo on the Green.

Townscape member Nancy Chute explains the proposed garden projects to the select board.

Townscape member Nancy Chute explained that the group had hired a landscape architect to design new plantings and asked the town to remove a number of bushes, saplings and debris around the information booth on Main Street in preparation.

The group also asked the town for $7,600 to hire Scott Wunderle to install a new walkway to the information booth, using old granite curbing material stored at the town pit. That project would also include installing a granite drip edge around the building. The Okemo Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce owned the information booth until recently when it gave the structure to the town.

While the board was supportive of the projects, Jonynas said he was reluctant to spend money not already budgeted this late in the year. He noted that the board would soon be working on next year’s budget and members would take the projects into consideration. The board asked Pisha to meet with Wunderle and Highway Foreman Graham Kennedy to see what things the town could do to reduce the costs of the work.

In other business

The board approved and signed an easement with Green Mountain Power for the placement of poles along Andover Road from Route 11 to the Chester/Andover town line.

Pisha told the board that work is under way on an Act 250 application to extract gravel from the property next to the high school. The 139-acre parcel was acquired for placing the town’s backup water tank but gravel was never far from the discussion. A permit will be needed to do the work and Vermont Fish & Wildlife must agree to the location of the extraction since the land is a deer wintering area.

Gustafson told the board that the committee working on the EMS building will be bringing a design to the board – possibly at the next meeting.

The board appointed Jessica DiMarco to the Whiting Library Board to replace Jessica Buchanan, who is moving out of the area.

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  1. G. Donohue says:

    Seems like the Select board does not want the public to know what it is up to as the Tomasso property purchase was not even listed as an Agenda item. Thank you Lee Gustafson for speaking up but clearly more questions need to be asked. Why would the town need to accept a grant for $20,000 to form a committee? How is the town owning the Tomasso property going to grow the grand list when it may represent a loss of tax revenue? Why are certain individuals already designating timber harvest and maple sugaring areas? The town needs to be more transparent with their dealings so that all citizens can stay informed and have a voice.