story and photos by Doug McClure
WOLCOTT – On Sunday, a group of roughly two dozen Wolcott residents braved drippy weather for, in the town’s words “a public site walk of the proposed Wolcott Community Forest” led by Vermont Trust for Public Land (TPL) Senior Project Manager Kate Wanner. Wolcott Select Board chair Linda Martin was also along for the tour.
The basic outlines are that for $25,000 of town money, the Vermont Trust for Public Land will leverage state and federal programs to facilitate Wolcott creating a community forest. At present, the forest would have approximately 300 acres of land from two parcels the town would purchase, with a third parcel of another 300 acres being a possibility.
The tax impact on residents would be minimal. Much of the property is already under Vermont’s Current Use program. Wolcott estimates slightly over $4,000 would come off of the town’s Grand List, reducing the total municipal property taxes Wolcott takes in by around $3,000. The overall impact is expected to be an increase in adjacent property values, with the town noting in a FAQ, “The creation of open space has been clearly documented to increase resale values of homes adjacent to the conserved land.
“Property owners will benefit from higher property values when they sell their homes and the town will benefit from an increased tax base, over time. According to a 2001 survey by the National Association of REALTORS® by Public Opinion Strategies, 50 percent of respondents said they would pay 10 percent more for a house located near a park or open space. Lastly, a Community Forest with a trail network that connects to the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail could attract new residents and new businesses.”
The town said the community forest would afford numerous educational and recreational opportunities for residents of all ages. The 2018 Wolcott Town Plan recommends Wolcott “pursue the acquisition of land for a Town Forest.” The property is within walking distance from the village center, including the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT). Part of it is directly adjacent to Wolcott Elementary School, and Principal Matt Foster has wanted to expand the opportunities for Wolcott’s kids to learn in the outdoors.
Grant funding through Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative could be applied for to create a five-mile network of trails for walking, skiing, and snowshoeing. With the LVRT becoming more widely used, Wolcott could see economic development benefits from a community forest adjacent to it as multiple other towns have. One thought is that the community forest could prove a springboard for other economic development projects such as a proposed community septic infrastructure.
Other possible uses include logging on a remote parcel or hunting and fishing on that same parcel since it is distant enough from the school not to pose issues. The plans are fluid as to where additional parking may be put in since the school’s parking lot will only be sporadically available.
The property tour was not exactly one that could be described as “a walk in the park,” and only partly due to the weather. Decades ago, a resident had carved out some trails, which, combined with a disused Class IV road, legal trails, and old logging roads, formed the map for the tour. This first section showed off a “rare natural community” which is technically called “Lowland Spruce-Fir Forest (S3).” Wanner later said that this section is the largest in the forest, comprising 27 acres.
She said that ecologist Matt Peters had noted, “Current composition matches this type fairly well, but the hilltop landscape setting is atypical for the type and the dense, spruce-dominated stand may be a product of land use history and management…Regardless of its origins, this stand offers beautiful, dark conifer groves with a soft, mossy carpet and good condition logging tracks that would be excellent and scenic [for] all-season trails. Likely provides important deer wintering area.”
The entrance was not obvious. After climbing over a sizable natural wall of branches and leaves that was almost three feet high in places, walkers were greeted with a steep uphill climb on a narrow path more suited to goats.
The group quickly fanned out as the more athletic and energetic moved faster. That path then turned downhill sharply, flooded with ferns in places, and the problem in some parts became the sogginess that sometimes made footing unsure. Wanner paused from time to time to allow the group to gather back together and give the walkers insight as to what was around them. A few of the people decided they’d received ample exercise for the day and turned back.
Even just a few minutes in, there was no evidence that the group was less than a mile from Route 15. One property contains a private residence that will stay, but unless someone was looking for it, it was not very visible from the path.
A second goat path led to a disused Class IV road that is technically still a town road but impassable. After that, walkers picked their way along the edge of a washout. A 1920s-era sedan, possibly a 1929 Pontiac or Oakland based on the unique oval rear window one walker noted, sat abandoned in the underbrush, its hood missing. Jokes were made about having discovered a secret road used by rumrunners during Prohibition. The walk continued, though the rain had gotten steadier and more had turned back for drier environs at home or to watch the game.
Even after an hour of walking, only the first of the two properties had been barely explored.