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Non-regulatory Conservation Tools

Conservation Commissions

            State law (24 V.S.A. § 4505 Chapter 118) authorizes municipalities to establish conservation commissions. Most often created by the voters, conservation commissions have the power to act in many ways that can protect natural resources. For example, conservation commissions may:

  •      inventory and study the natural resources of the municipality;

  •      inventory land that has scientific and educational value;

  •      recommend that the town purchase or accept land;

  •      receive grants and gifts to be kept in a conservation fund;

  •      administer conservation lands;

  •      provide advisory environmental evaluations to Act 250 and local planning and zoning boards on the impact of pending applications on natural resources; and

  •      participate as a party in zoning appeals in environmental court.

            This statutory authority gives local conservation commissions a vital role in protecting a community's natural resources. The Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions (AVCC) is an excellent resource for communities that have or that are considering conservation commissions. (See Resources for contact information.) 

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Acquiring Land and Conservation Easements

             As noted above, one of the key powers of a conservation commission is the ability to recommend that the municipality acquire land and maintain a conservation fund to support land purchases. Vermont law specifically authorizes select boards to purchase land for conservation purposes. Accordingly, obtaining voter approval for the select board to spend town funds for land conservation and all the associated public interests is an excellent tool.

            To avoid the need to seek voter approval for land acquisition at each town meeting, municipalities may establish reserve funds for conservation purposes that roll over from year to year (24 V.S.A. § 2804, general statute authorizing reserve funds). Reserve funds and conservation funds administered by the conservation commission can become reliable resources that enable local communities to act expeditiously to purchase land or development rights to conserve natural resources. A useful tool for making effective use of such funds is to develop a priority land conservation plan. Based on the process outlined throughout this manual, this plan would identify those lands within the community that are the most important for acquisition or long-term conservation.

            Conservation easements are a very important tool for the permanent conservation of lands. In essence, conservation easements are documents that identify the purposes for which the land(s) are being conserved and establish terms and conditions that identify permitted and restricted use of those lands that relate to the conservation purposes. The landowner serves as the "Grantor" of the easement and conveys it to a "Grantee," the person(s) or organization(s) that will receive the easement.

            In contrast to land acquisition (or acquisition in fee), conservation easements can be purchased to remove development rights from the price of the land. This is a highly effective strategy for conserving important lands while continuing to keep them as part of a working landscape. In this way, the landowner receives a financial return on his/her land, the land is conserved for its natural resource and related public interest values, and it can remain in a working condition for forest products, agriculture, and other compatible enterprises. Conservation easements can  be held by municipalities as well as state agencies, land trusts, and other nonprofit organizations. The Vermont Land Trust and the Agency of Natural Resources are excellent sources of information on how to design and execute conservation easements.

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Managing Town Highways

            As previously noted, the link between infrastructure and development has been well documented. Arguably, no infrastructure decision has more of an effect on how and to what extent development proceeds than the town road network.

            Municipalities may protect natural resources by choosing to create and maintain its major highway arteries away from natural resource areas. Accordingly, if municipal planning efforts indicate that significant natural resources exist off Class 4 highways (the lowest class of highway that require the least amount of town maintenance) use of these highways may be discontinued and/or turned into recreational trails (19 V.S.A. §§ 708-711). In this way, municipalities can direct development away from important natural resources while creating recreational opportunities for residents.

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Impact Fees

            Municipalities are authorized to charge developers impact fees to offset the cost of specific developments on increases in municipal facilities such as schools and utilities (24 V.S.A. § 5200 et seq.). The concept behind impact fees is that if a development adds people who will be using municipal services, the developer should be required to pay its proportional share for the increase in that service.

            As an example, impact fees have been used to require developers whose projects will increase the use of municipal recreation areas, including town forests, to pay to expand or upgrade these areas. In this way, impact fees can be used to protect natural resources.

            Impact fees are not used in many Vermont communities because the law requires a strict accounting of the fees. Because managing impact fees can be complicated, it is advisable to consult a planning consultant and/or an attorney beforehand.

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Tree Wardens

             The select board appoints the town's tree warden (24 V.S.A. 871). The tree warden has responsibility for shade and ornamental trees within the limits of public ways and places. He or she may plan and implement a shade tree preservation program, including planting and preservation, for the purpose of shading and beautifying public ways (24 V.S.A. 2502). Frequently, the tree warden is also the road commissioner, but the select board can appoint different individuals for each job and thus avoid a conflict between road maintenance and shade trees.

Municipal Forest

            Each year at town meeting many towns vote on this particular issue: "To see if the select board will acquire by gift or purchase land for a municipal forest to promote reforestation, water conservation, and good forestry practices." A municipality may vote sums of money for the purchase, management, and improvement of a municipal forest in and outside of the municipality. A municipal forest may be devoted to producing wood products, maintaining wildlife habitat, protecting water supplies, providing forest recreation, and providing opportunities for conservation education (10 V.S.A. §§ 2651; 2652).

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