Selectmen consider $60K to conserve 16 acres near Middlebury River

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen are poised to release $60,000 from the town’s conservation fund to protect a 16-acre parcel bordering the Middlebury River, land that environmental advocates say could be critical in managing future flood events as well as in assuring access to swimmers, hikers and anglers.
The money would pay for a conservation easement.
The land, located near the junction of Route 7 South and Ossie Road, is owned by Faith Sessions and Janice Neil. It has 4,200 feet of frontage on the southern edge of the Middlebury River. It is located directly across the river from an 11.4-acre parcel (behind Valley Electric Supply Co.) already jointly owned by the town of Middlebury and the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT).
Joshua Phillips, executive director of MALT, noted the Middlebury River moves briskly through the property in question. The river spilled its banks in several locations last August, taking out — among other things — numerous culverts and the Lower Plains Bridge in East Middlebury.
A conservation easement would prohibit development and road construction, as well as limit logging within the property — thereby diminishing activities that could contribute to additional erosion along that key stretch of the river, according to Phillips.
“It is really important from a hydro-dynamic perspective to allow the river to do what it pleases,” Phillips said. “As the river comes down the mountain, it is discharging a lot of energy before it gets to the Otter Creek. By allowing it to meander, it slows down the water and we are really helping, in terms of erosion.”
A 20-foot-wide access easement feeds into the property from Route 7, near the village of East Middlebury. Officials said they would work to resolve parking concerns for future visitors to the property.
It’s property that Phillips said boasts many wildlife species and recreational opportunities.
“It is really a great spot,” Phillips said. “Once we provide some public access to it — whether that be the development of a trail, which would probably be ideal — it will really be a wonderful place for everybody, particularly the residents of East Middlebury, because it is walkable for a great number of people.”
In a broader walking context, the property could serve as a key east-west link in the connection between the Trail Around Middlebury and Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, according to Phillips.
Selectmen voiced support for the project, which will depend on a $60,000 grant from the municipal conservation fund, which currently contains around $270,000. That fund is boosted each year with the proceeds form one cent on the municipal tax rate.
Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington noted the town’s development review board “strongly supports” the proposed easement.
Selectmen, too, were supportive of the project and seemed ready to approve MALT’s $60,000 request on Tuesday. They deferred that decision until their next meeting, however, as the MALT request wasn’t listed as an “action” item on the agenda.
“I think this is important, in terms of what this gives us — easements on both sides of the river,” Selectman Victor Nuovo said of the proposal.
“It gives us the flexibility of flood control and conservation practices,” added selectboard Chairman John Tenny. “I’m happy to support it.”
Other action from Middlebury selectboard
MIDDLEBURY — In other action at Tuesday’s Middlebury selectboard meeting, selectmen:
•  Unanimously agreed to establish a separate seven-member development review board (DRB) and five-member planning commission. The town currently has a seven-member panel (with alternates) that both reviews project applications as a DRB and drafts planning policy for the community as the planning commission. Town officials have decided it would be better to have two separate boards, with no overlapping members, to fulfill those separate missions.
Selectmen also on Tuesday nominated applicants to serve on those two boards. Nominated for the DRB were residents Pat Berry, Tim Bradley, Scott Foster, Adam Portz and Helen Reiff. Only three of those five nominees will be appointed, as there are four incumbents on the DRB (Gary Baker, Ted Davis, Lewis Holmes and Skip Brush) whose terms are still active.
Selectmen nominated residents Tim Bradley, Natalie Peters, Barbara Saunders and John Stark to serve on the planning commission. Only two of those four nominees will be appointed, as there are currently three planning commission incumbents — John Barstow, Amy Sheldon and Nancy Malcolm — with unexpired terms.
The board will vote on the nominees and make appointments at a meeting next month.
•  Re-appointed incumbent Tree Warden Peg Martin to another term. Two other residents — Dean Rheaume and Lawrence Katz — had also sought the position.
•  Received an update from a committee that is studying Middlebury’s machinery and equipment (M&E) tax, looking at ways the town could possibly phase out what many local leaders say is a levy that discourages business growth in town. The trouble is the M&E tax generates around $270,000 in revenue, or about 4 cents on the municipal tax rate. Selectmen don’t want to merely shift that M&E tax levy to residential property taxpayers, particularly in this tough economy.
Selectman Craig Bingham, a member of the M&E study committee, said he and his colleagues agree it would be best for the town if the tax were abolished. Middlebury is one of the few communities left in the state to impose such a tax. The committee is looking at ways to phase out the tax over up to 10 years. The panel is expected to make a recommendation to the selectboard later this spring.
•  Unanimously agreed to issue a liquor license and entertainment permit to the Farmers Diner restaurant, slated to open in around a month in the former Top Spice Restaurant space in the Marble Works complex.
•  Awarded demolition contracts for the removal of Steele’s Mobil at 83 Main St., as well as the buildings at 182 and 188 South Pleasant St., to make way for the new Cross Street Bridge. Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said demolition work is expected to take place next week.

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