Essex Conservation Reserve Fund
For many years, the Town of Essex was one of only a few in Chittenden County to have a significant amount undeveloped land, but no conservation fund to encourage its protection, even after the 1989 Open Lands Study recommended creating a fund or local land trust. Seeing continued rates of rural development, in 2014 the Conservation Committee began re-evaluating previous failed measures to create a fund in 1990 and 1991 to understand how to make another effort successful. After researching the issue and soliciting community feedback, the Committee and the Town’s planning staff drafted a policy outlining the purpose, funding sources, and uses of a potential Conservation Reserve Fund. This policy was adopted by the Selectboard before the fund went to a vote at Town-wide meeting in 2018 so that voters would have assurance of fiscal responsibility and defined uses, rather than a “slush fund.”
Agricultural Land, Forest Land, Funding, Land Protection, Outreach, Town Plan, water, wetland, wildlife
At Town Meeting 2018, the two measures (one to create the fund, one to appropriate $15,000 in taxes to seed the fund) were passed overwhelmingly by voice vote.
Bob Heiser of the Vermont Land Trust provided guidance on drafting policy and anticipating costs for potential projects.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns provided policy and legal advice.
The Essex Selectboard adopted a policy before the Town-wide vote, demonstrating support for the idea and assurance to the voters of fiscal responsibility.
The Charlotte Conservation Commission and Williston Conservation Commission (as well as Conservation Planner Melinda Scott) provided advice on gaining public and policymaker support for a fund as well as funding and project management considerations.
Prior to the Committee's recent efforts, the 2014 Heart & Soul of Essex project facilitated by the Orton Foundation identified conservation of open space as a community goal, and this public engagement laid the groundwork for the recent success.
Nevertheless, sustained interest and volunteer time from the Conservation Committee (and later the consolidated Conservation & Trails Committee) ensured that the project was carried through to fruition.
This included organizing a community survey on the Town's conservation priorities, which also revealed that many residents did not want significant tax increases, but would be willing to donate to a local conservation fund. The Committee also creating maps showing critical resources based on ANR data, and publicized information about the vote through the town's annual report, the local newspaper, and Front Porch Forum.
Another important factor was diligent research on alternative land conservation measures and the process of creating conservation easements. This led to the defining feature of the successful proposal: a 'donation grant' program which would assist landowners already interested in donating conservation easements cover the legal and stewardship fees required by land trusts.
The Committee considered creation of a local land trust, but decided against it after research showed that money and staff/volunteer time would be spent more efficiently through a conservation fund since there is less 'overhead.'
This level of due diligence helped demonstrate to the community that the town was committed to prudent spending of conservation funding.
Starting from a point of two previous failures was a challenge, but ultimately helped better define the project's path and outcomes. Even so, public resistance to tax increases, as well as staff and volunteer of CTC membership and complicated municipal budget timelines made for a longer process than otherwise might have been possible.