Bristol considers need for New Haven River floodplain

BRISTOL — Since 1995, a particularly dynamic and volatile portion of the New Haven River — just south of Bristol’s A. Johnson lumber mill — has moved 400 feet west, encroaching on Route 116 and threatening numerous homes.
Kristen Underwood, a river scientist and Bristol resident, has been working on a plan to protect homes along this stretch of Route 116 for the past two years. As she’s nearing the end of her state-funded work, Underwood, Route 116 residents, the Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) and the town of Bristol have proposed a solution.
Todd and Allan Saunders, who own about 400 acres of farmland off of Route 116, have verbally agreed to sell 38.6 acres of land around that portion of the river to VRC.  The nonprofit, which will present a purchase and sales contract to the Saunders this Friday, would then place a conservation easement on that land, which stipulates the uses permitted on that land, before selling the property to the town with those easements in place.
The aim of the project is to give the river wiggle room. Those 38.6 acres of land would be used primarily as flood plain, where the river can meander and deposit sediment.
“The concept here is to acquire this land so that it’s owned by an entity that can allow the river to do its meandering and also incorporate some stabilization measures to keep it from going toward Route 116, where some houses might be impacted,” said Town Administrator Bill Bryant.
Underwood is also in the process of designing an additional project that uses this wiggle room to protect the homes lining Route 116. Since scientific river analysis shows that the river has meandered as far west as it will go, state agencies are also kicking in expertise and funds for this project. The details of the project should be released in the next month or so, said Underwood.
To fund these transactions and the maintenance of the conservation easement, VRC and the town are seeking funding from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Agency of Natural Resources’ Ecological Restoration Grant Program. The Bristol selectboard has agreed to spend up to $6,500 from the town’s conservation reserve fund on the purchase, and Bryant mentioned at last week’s selectboard meeting that this land doesn’t generate much tax revenue for the town.
As part of the proposed agreement, the Saunders brothers would be able to hay and farm the 38.6 acres for the rest of their lives.
VRC Director Steve Libby broke down this arrangement.
“It should be a simple agreement between them and the town of Bristol, saying: ‘The town owns this land, but we’re giving you the right to use it for agricultural purposes,’” he said. “It’s not a right the Saunders are retaining, but a permission that the town is granting.”
Todd and Allan Saunders would not be allowed to farm within 50 feet of the river, and as the river wanders, they will have to adjust the area where they can farm.
As part of the agreement, VRC stipulates that there be public access to this land and to the river. The stipulations placed on this land would only apply to the land currently owned by the family, not adjacent landowners.
By Tuesday, the town and Todd and Allan Saunders hope to have ironed out language regarding their agricultural use of the land, and by mid-September, the VRC’s Libby thinks all parties will know whether the necessary funding has come through.
“We’re very hopeful both of these major funding entities will come through,” he said.

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