By Lisa Loomis
The Valley Reporter asked a variety of local community leaders to provide questions for the four candidates running for two state representative seats for the Washington 7 district, which includes Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, Moretown and Duxbury.
The candidates are incumbents Adam Greshin, I-Warren, and Maxine Grad, D-Moretown. Challengers are Ed Read, I-Fayston, and Heidi Spear, I-Fayston. Candidates will be answering questions from community members in the upcoming issues of The Valley Reporter, leading up to the newspaper's candidate forum at Big Picture Theater, Waitsfield, on October 27 at 7 p.m.
Will Flender, director, Mad River Path
What more could the state (and, more specifically, the Legislature) do to encourage more private landowners to open their land to public recreation, including trails?
Spear: We must tackle concerns regarding opening private land to public trail systems. When we were in the process of granting Mad River Path easements on our land, we covered questions around liability, Current Use, signage and maintenance. As complex questions were addressed, we could see clear advantages to granting easements beyond personal values. Reduced liability, commonsense coordination with land management, investments in signage to guide traffic to optimal routes, and maintenance of trails to reduce erosion all make granting easements a desirable option. A statewide benefits awareness campaign would help expand the network. Also, the Legislature should consider reforms to Current Use legislation to provide trail easements, where agricultural use doesn't preclude it, in exchange for the very dramatic property tax reduction this program offers. Currently, 17,000 properties, equaling one-third of Vermont's land, are enrolled in Current Use. Concentrating tax burdening on others should secure more public benefit.
Grad: The Legislature can explore a tax incentive for public recreation within our Current Use law. Recreation is a growing economy and one that attracts people to visit and live in The Valley. Our working lands do as well. I would review our landowner liability law to see if an expansion is needed. We should work with the Agency of Agriculture and ANR to determine whether properly designed trails can be used as part of buffers to protect the Mad River and other waterways, and find funding for these buffers. I'd review what other towns do to support recreational development. Prioritizing recreation in town plans and developing a master plan for trails are such strategies. Local option taxes, while controversial, are used too. I encourage you to bring participating landowners to meet with landowners who are considering opening their land to discuss their experiences and address concerns.
Greshin: Vermont has long encouraged private landowners to open their land for public recreation. The Landowner Liability Law, updated in 1997, protects landowners who allow free public recreation on their property. The law also confirms that an owner who makes land available to the public is not at risk of limiting his or her property rights, or creating any claim or right of eminent domain. The Legislature has resisted the temptation to provide property tax advantages to private land open to public recreation. Substantial private tracts already allow recreational access and the benefit would have to be extended to all landowners. The Legislature has also resisted calls to attach open land requirements to Current Use participants. The best approach is to encourage greater use of conservation easements and facilitate the efforts of organizations such as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which helps fund the conservation of large tracts of land.
Read: The importance of recreation to our area cannot be understated. It's the backbone of our economy, and it's a primary reason that many of us choose to live here. Since its inception, the Mad River Path has seen sporadic growth and contraction but isn't close to realizing its potential as an economic driver. The state can provide some funding for trail construction, but the land acquisition needs to come from donated easements. It's primarily a local issue. The state legislation shouldn't be giving tax breaks or enacting property tax relief programs (a la Current Use) as an enticement for landowners, as it just shifts the tax burden to everyone else. A state legislator, however, can provide the leadership to bring landowners, local government, business leaders, and community leaders together to figure out the best ways to accomplish this. Local issues need local solutions, not state oversight.
Corrie Miller, director, Friends of the Mad River
Where does building the Valley's resilience to future flooding rank on your priority list? Do you see opportunities for reducing stormwater runoff and focusing development outside the floodplain as important steps to a healthy, vibrant community?
Spear: If we do not increase resilience to future flooding, many of our families and businesses remain in harm's way. Development plans that encourage clustered business and residential development outside the floodplain is constructive, surely, but our historic villages in the watershed will remain economic and community centers. To the extent that we can protect ourselves, we must do so, leveraging state and federal assistance whenever possible. This is a top priority and we must contain other financial burdens to address it effectively. We need a watershed-wide approach to tackle stormwater management and the work involved requires more investment. Establishment of a watershed-wide stormwater utility is an increasingly common and recommended approach to fund such work. However, with property taxes rising year over year undermining affordability in our area, this new cost can't be absorbed by most households. Statewide education funding reform is crucial to our ability to appropriately fund such local investments in community, environmental and economic security.
Grad: Resilience ranks high. It's critical to The Valley's economic and overall health. I supported Act 138 addressing resiliency. I applaud the MRVPD and FMR's efforts resulting from their EPA grant, and look forward to working with them, towns, and state agencies to assist in proposals set forth in November's watershed-wide public meeting. Water quality is critical to a community's health. I will work with the MRVPD on steps in the MR Policy Report that identifies techniques on reducing stormwater and focusing development outside the floodplain. EPA and ANR are preparing a Lake Champlain TMDL clean-up plan for early 2015. The Legislature needs to address it. I support a comprehensive water quality bill that provides an approach to limiting nutrient loading. Municipalities need to consider town plans and zoning in regard to stormwater. More should be done to assist municipalities to develop needed infrastructure that is critical to our economy.
Greshin: Flooding is a periodic event that only becomes a disaster when we build homes and infrastructure in the floodplain. The cost of cleaning up after a flood is far greater than the cost of building for resiliency. Economics alone favors smart development. Vermont has many communities, including most of our larger ones, built alongside rivers and lakes and we should make every effort to prepare for the next flood. But future development should be directed away from the water, as it was in earlier times. Last year, I participated in a series of thought sessions with community leaders and government agencies sponsored by the Institute for Sustainable Communities. The output was a Roadmap for Resilience which helped propel several legislative initiatives last session, including Act 146 (new town centers and growth centers) and Act 172 (shoreland protection). A key takeaway from the Roadmap: Align rules and investments for stronger communities.
Read: Flood resiliency is equal parts public policy and common sense. In the 2014 legislative session, a law was passed that requires town plans to include a flood resiliency plan, but most towns had already begun this work. Valley towns have taken culvert inventories and are systematically replacing insufficiently sized culverts with larger ones. Stormwater remediation is an increasingly important engineering component of property developments. Stream setback requirements and forest blocks protect against upland erosion and runoff. The continuing effort to reestablish streambank vegetation is also effective to filter pollutants and slow down floodwater. For existing floodplain development, access to improved rehabilitative building design, the National Flood Insurance Program, and local and state preparedness resources can help mitigate the effects of future floods. As for future development, I think common sense would dictate that new building occur outside of a floodplain.