Aldermen cool to new commission

VERGENNES — Members of the Vergennes City Council at their Jan. 11 meeting said they were skeptical of the possible creation of a Vergennes conservation commission, which some said might create an unwanted layer of bureaucracy.
However, the municipal plan aldermen adopted in September 2009 calls for one to be established.
Aldermen took up the discussion at their meeting last week at the request of planning commission chairwoman Alex McGuire. She did not have a hand in creating the plan or adopting its conservation commission language, but said she backed the concept.
Aldermen were facing a deadline. Per Vermont law, only town voters can establish a conservation commission — although aldermen would appoint its volunteer members — and the date for making final the Vergennes warning for March’s city meeting is approaching quickly.
City Manager Mel Hawley acknowledged he had not realized a citywide vote was required, or he would have brought the issue to the council’s attention sooner.
Ultimately, aldermen tabled the question until after Town Meeting Day, when the issue could be explored in depth.
Alderwoman and former planning commission member Ziggy Comeau was one who questioned the need for a conservation commission. She said the planning commission and development review board (DRB) were “doing excellent work” and were enough to protect the city’s conservation interests.
Comeau said she could “see problems down the road” if the commission were added.
“We’re a little over a square mile. How much further can we go on this?” she said.
McGuire said in an interview the next day the council may not understand the full functions of a conservation commission, and she hopes something can be done to meet the plan’s call when aldermen sit down with more information in March.
“I do understand the concerns of the city council,” she said. “But I also just feel there is a lot more to it than just preserving open space.”
According to state statutes, powers and duties of a conservation commission may include:
•Helping zoning and planning officials by “providing advisory environmental evaluations” on development applications.
•Making an inventory of and studying a town’s natural resources, including soils, streams, wetlands, “fragile biological sites,” “scenic and natural resources,” plant and animal life, and prime farmland and forests.
•Making an inventory of land that has “historic, educational, cultural, scientific, architectural or archaeological values.”
•Recommending to selectmen or aldermen the purchase or acceptance as a gift valuable land or other property, and administering those acquisitions afterward.
According to statute, a conservation commission can also “adopt by majority vote … such rules as it deems necessary and appropriate for the performance of its functions.” Some aldermen said they were concerned those rules might give the commission too much power.
Alderman Randy Ouellette said he saw a conservation commission as “another level of bureaucracy.”
Alderman David Austin said he had seen towns in which conservation commissions had worked well to help zoning officials in an advisory capacity in dealing with the preservation of buildings as well as open land, but in other communities commissions had become obstacles to development.
But McGuire said a conservation commission could not do more than advise zoning and planning officials on development, and could not overrule other city officials. Its advice might be helpful, she said.
“I think we have a stewardship responsibility to the city … to pay attention to what we’re doing now to make sure we’re not doing something we can’t take back in 20 years,” she said.
Commission functions in Vergennes, she said, might include working with residents to seek voluntary cooperation with land trusts, helping manage the city’s urban forestry program, and taking on projects like testing water quality in the Otter Creek basin and working with other towns on that issue.
“A lot of the role of a conservation commission, truthfully, is research,” McGuire said.
McGuire said both at the meeting and afterward that the city plan’s requirement for a conservation commission should be taken seriously.
“I believe there’s an ethical obligation on that front,” she said on Wednesday.
Hawley said, however, aldermen did not have to rush to act, if at all, and he noted there would be some staffing costs if the commission were founded.
“It is in the plan to create it,” Hawley said. “But I don’t think you are compelled to do that in a hasty manner.”
McGuire told the council that she, and possibly other current and former planners, would make sure aldermen would have a more complete presentation after Town Meeting Day.
“I hope you keep an open mind until you have all the information,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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