By Kara Herlihy
Is the beech tree stand of the Slide Brook Basin critical to bear habitat? Who decides? It was the battle of the experts Tuesday evening, October 16, as Robert Crean appeared for the final hearing on his proposed five-lot subdivision covering 16.5 acres on Slide Brook Road.
The real contention came in the form of two dueling wildlife biologists, neither of whom was present at the meeting. While the experts were not present, Fayston residents concerned about this subdivision were out in force for the hearing.
PARSONS VS WALLIN
During the hearing, Crean read a report from certified wildlife biologist Jeffery Wallin of Multiple Resource Management that indicated that while he did visit the site and find bear-scarred beech trees, these trees were not 'critical' to the habitat.
Wallin writes, "This pocket of bear-scarred beech is simply that, a pocket. It is situated on a ridge between the two small streams and measures 1.75 acres. This plot of beech, though showing signs of utilization by bears, is too small and distant from Critical Bear Habitat #1 to be considered significant or necessary wildlife habitat."
The Fayston DRB sought the consultation of Jeffery Parsons of Arrowwood Environmental. In his report, dated March 24, 2007, Parsons cites that "Critical Bear Habitat #2 (CBH#2) has a density of almost 30 trees per acre, a density of bear scarred beech that the Fish and Wildlife Department considers high enough to be critical wildlife habitat for black bears."
BEAR HABITAT BUFFER
During the August 29 hearing before the DRB Crean was asked to indicate a quarter-mile buffer from CBH #2 but failed to do so because the report he received from Wallin did not indicate that the habitat was indeed "critical."
"We're missing some pieces here," commented DRB member David Cain.
The vicinity around the proposed Crean subdivision is also considered a bear travel corridor by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Parsons reports, "An inadequate buffer will be maintained if the Crean subdivision is implemented as designed.
Parsons continues, "In addition, the improvement of the Slide Brook Road will add additional vehicular traffic to the immediate area. The probable result of both of these actions is that the black bear travel corridor will be compromised...and could jeopardize the use of the corridor altogether."
Wallin's report references a letter submitted to the DRB by a former member of the Planning Commission, a letter in which he said there were several inaccuracies.
He writes, "The letter also emphatically states Mr. Crean's parcel and the proposed access to it are located within the corridor area. To my knowledge, no corridor has been identified in this area nor has habitat that it may access been delineated."
Members of the planning commission were present to dispute the proposed subdivision based upon its lack of compliance with the Town Plan, including the maintenance and protection of bear habitats, as well as a provision which discourages development on or near them.
Crean said several times that if the DRB passed his application, they would be protecting the habitat, rather than compromising it. He said, "If this application passes it will always be a no cut, no development zone."
During the public comment period, however, several neighbors as well as interested parties spoke out against the proposed subdivision. Ned Kelley said that he had visited the site and "was very impressed by the bear habitat" and that the bear travel corridor acts as a funnel into the Crean parcel.
"We have to make the bears feel safe," Kelley said.
Shayne Jacquith of the Fayston Planning Commission said that the presence of domestic dogs poses a large threat to the bear habitat. Jacquith also indicated that the Slide Brook beech stand is one of the most important bear habitats in the state.
Wallin concludes his report saying, "I have reviewed the conditions of the mediated settlement agreement and feel that they more than adequately protect the habitat." He was referring to a settlement reached by the town and Crean after Crean appealed his 2005 denial for this project to Vermont Environmental Court.
The current proposal includes a roughly eight-acre lot to be permanently protected from development. The mediation settlement also stipulates 100-foot buffers for unnamed brooks and other restrictions involving barbecues, fruit trees and motorized recreation vehicles. The settlement also called for moving house sites to less sensitive areas. According to the settlement agreement, if the town does not approve this revised subdivision application, Crean's previous appeal will be reopened.
In a letter submitted to the DRB, Crean writes, "By voting to approve my application you are providing the residents of Fayston and the general public a permanent easement for non motorized use of the trail that borders Lockwood Brook."
NEVER SUBDIVIDED AGAIN
He continues, "Approval of my application means there will never be more than four homes on this 16.5-acre parcel. These lots can never be subdivided again."
At the hearing Crean stated, "If you deny my plan you're throwing away an opportunity."
After a motion was made to move into deliberative session to rule on the application, DRB chair John Shea opposed the motion and stated that he "doesn't think this town should have deliberative sessions." Also, that there was "too much information to move to adjourn."
The motion passed and the Fayston DRB has 45 days to render a decision on the proposed five-lot subdivision.