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Monica Przyperhart (member of the Middlebury Conservation Commission, & Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, Community Wildlife Program, Conservation Planner)
Last September, I joined a growing team of Conservation Commissioners in Vermont as my town, Middlebury, added a Conservation Commission to our list of municipal entities. While many communities in Vermont have toyed with the idea of starting a Conservation Commission, many wonder: How would a Conservation Commission benefit our town? And… how do we start one? While both answers differ in every community, I offer a few general thoughts.
The role of a Conservation Commission can vary drastically from one town to the next. In some towns, Conservation Commissions focus almost entirely on outreach and education, getting citizens out on the local landscape and better understanding town resources. In others, Conservation Commissions identify potential parcels for land conservation, working as liaisons between landowners and a land trust. Others manage town land and oversee activities such as forestry or recreation, and in still others, Conservation Commissions play essential roles aiding the Planning Commission with natural resources planning or weighing in on a development review process. While it can sometimes be unclear what holds these diverse tasks together under one umbrella, Vermont statutes allow for this variability, and it is this variability that allows towns to determine how a Conservation Commission can best fit into the local context.
There is no need to ruffle feathers in a town in which some aspects of conservation are controversial. A community with no appetite for land conservation may still have a Planning Commission that would welcome help from those who can focus time and expertise on natural resources, freeing them up to tackle a long lists of required tasks. In your community, what are the needs and opportunities? Is there town land that would benefit from coordinated management? Is there an interest in land conservation, but no one to facilitate the process? You can see the full list of possible duties in Vermont’s Conservation Commission enabling language, which can be found on Vermont Statutes Online. Gauge interest from other community members. Do they agree that your town would benefit from a Conservation Commission? Can you find people interested in serving on such a Commission? Would existing municipal groups like the Planning Commission support the development of a Conservation Commission?
Eventually, you’ll need to make your case to the Selectboard. Be specific about what the Conservation Commission will do. How will it work with other municipal groups? What needs will it fill? Whose support have you already gathered? In Middlebury’s case, the town planner played the primary role in pushing forward a Conservation Commission. She spelled out exactly how the Commission would work alongside the Planning Commission and Development Review Board, and she even created a 2-year work plan for the new Commission. With so much work done up front, the Select Board could clearly see what role the Commission would play, and they knew exactly what they were approving. While not all towns have the benefit of a town planner, I think anyone wishing to start a Conservation Commission would do well to take the same organizational steps up front.
What Are Conservation Commissions?
In Vermont, conservation commissions are advisory bodies that exist in many towns across the state. Broadly, they are established to help communities protect and enhance their natural resources. In 1977, Vermont passed the enabling legislation (24 V.S.A. 4501) to establish municipal conservation commissions. By 1996, 96 Vermont towns had conservation commissions or similar committees. Today there are just over 100 conservation commissions in Vermont.
How Are Conservation Commissions Established?
According to state law, “A conservation commission may be created at any time when a municipality votes to create one, or, if the charter of a municipality permits it, when the legislative body of the municipality votes to create one.”
This means that either the selectboard (or in some cases a city council) may create a conservation commission or, alternatively, voters at town meeting may vote to create one.
What Can Conservation Commissions Do?
Under state law, municipal conservation commissions may do things like make inventories of the town’s natural resources including lands that have agricultural, scientific, historical, educational, or cultural value or important, or provide ecosystem services like groundwater recharge, stormwater control, flood protection, wildlife habitat and other values; receive gifts of land for conservation purposes; assist and advise the local planning commission and select board on natural resource issues; and encouraging the public’s understanding of their local environment through educational activities. Conservation commissions do not have regulatory power as do some other bodies, like select boards or planning commissions; conservation commissions are advisory boards only.
What Types of Projects Can Conservation Commissions Undertake?
The projects that a town conservation commission can become involved in will vary depending on the needs of the community. The following is only a partial list of the typical conservation commission activities:
- Work for the protection of wetlands, forests, or agricultural land
- Test the water quality of lakes, streams, and rivers
- Manage town-owned lands
- Encourage energy conservation development of renewable energy
- Work with the planning commission on the town plan
- Develop a resource guide to conservation options
- Purchase land for the town’s conservation needs
- Encourage the establishment of a land conservation fund
- Organize education workshops, walks and talks series for local citizens or in local schools
What’s the Relationship between Conservation Commissions and Planning Commissions?
Conservation commissions can work effectively with local planning commissions and other local, regional, and state organizations and agencies. Often planning commissions are overburdened with the details of other town work. A conservation commission can focus its energies on that town’s natural resources and thereby ensure that the conservation interests of its community are being addressed. Conservation commissions can also assist planning commissions with the review and evaluation of development proposals. The mere presence of conservation commissions has encouraged residents to approach commissions with conservation concerns and goals to protect or donate their land.
How Are Conservation Commissions Funded?
Many commissions in Vermont have annual appropriations from their towns’ budgets for operating expenses, usually ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 per year. However, many commissions have operated successfully for years with no budget. Conservation commissions can carry out fundraisers or seek public or private funds. Grants are also available for a wide variety of projects from private organizations or state and federal agencies. The AVCC also offers the annual Tiny Grant program for conservation commissions that are members of AVCC
What Is the Future for Vermont Conservation Commissions?
With the increasing development pressures, conservation commissions can play a vital role in grassroots conservation efforts. The Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions was formed in 1990 to support Vermont’s existing conservation commissions and to encourage more towns to establish these commissions. Please contact AVCC for further information by emailing us at vtconservation @ gmail.com. Also, please join the AVCC listerve at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/vtconservation. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to automatically join
If you’re just starting out, we recommend doing a few things first.
Join AVCC, Members of the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions get discounts for services such as the annual conservation summit, receive our newsletter, join our listserv and have exclusive access to the tiny grants program.
Join the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions listserv. Ask all the members of your commission to join too. Send an email to email@example.com to automatically register your email. It’s free and is a great place to ask even basic questions. There are more than 500 people on this list, including commission members across the state as well as professional conservationists in state agencies, land trusts, and conservation NGOs. Emails are not moderated and the views expressed therein do not necessarily represent AVCC.
Attend AVCC’s annual Conservation Summit in the fall. That’s a great place to learn and network with other commissions.
Learn about what other CCs have done. Visit AVCC’s library of conservation success stories
Talk with Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s Community Wildlife Program. They offer technical assistance to all conservation commissions on any aspect of a commission’s work, from getting and interpreting data, help with using BioFinder, strategic planning, community value mapping and more. Staff from the program serve on the Board of AVCC and are active partners in our work.