The Waitsfield Planning Commission and Conservation Commission have been at work developing the town forest plan to comply with Act 171 and protect local resources.

“The planning commission’s work over recent months has included Town Plan updates pertaining to Act 171. Act 171 amended Vermont planning statutes to encourage and allow municipalities to address protection of forest blocks and habitat connectors, while also supporting the local forest products industry,” said planning and zoning administrator JB Weir.

“After January 1, 2018, municipalities seeking to have their plans approved by their regional planning commission must include additional information on the future land use map and language that identifies state, regional or locally significant forest blocks and habitat connectors. The plan may also include specific policies on how the community will take steps to reduce forest fragmentation, enhance forest health and support essential ecological functions.”

“This project was a joint effort between the planning commission and the conservation commission,” Weir said. “Their work created new forest blocks and habitat connectors maps and defined our critical forest blocks with a three-tier criteria of importance.” Working with Vermont Fish and Wildlife and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the commissions “adopted preferred designs for development to accommodate new homes and to preserve the critical forest blocks and habitats … The commissions reviewed and identified critical habitat crossings along Route 100.”

“We’ve worked together to develop proposed changes to the Town Plan to incorporate what’s been found and potential actions to be taken by the town, nonprofit partners and individuals to increase awareness, appreciation and sound stewardship and conservation” of local resources, said Phil Huffman of the Waitsfield Conversation Commission.

The groups compiled data on forest blocks throughout Waitsfield, including the Scrag Mountain parcel that the conservation commission has focused its attention on in recent years since acquiring the land four years ago. “We’re using this data to make updates to the Waitsfield Town Plan,” specifically to chapters pertaining to natural resources and land use, said Brian Voigt of the planning commission. “Most of our intention is to look at voluntary efforts to make changes in the way people develop, consider factors related to [wildlife] habitats and looking at potential changes in zoning codes about the way people develop,” Voigt said, “to preserve the integrity of forest blocks.”

Scrag Mountain and Wu Ledges are the two largest forest blocks in town, Huffman said, with “the main focus being on doing fresh investment on trail-based recreational opportunities” in those areas. For the past year, the conservation commission has worked with trail planning consultants and held virtual community forums as well as undertaken a public survey regarding planning for additional trails on the Scrag Mountain parcel. “We’re trying to make it a thoughtful process and think through carefully the community desires for Scrag,” he said. “We’ve done what I think it a very thoughtful and scientifically-based mapping process.”

He reported that the commission is nearing the end of the trail planning process and will be holding a public forum on November 29 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The event will be primarily virtual, though they do ask anyone who wants to attend in person to RSVP, as space in the town office is limited. The hope is to have new trails at Scrag Mountain forest open for use by fall 2022. The select board will have to approve the proposed amendments to the Town Plan.

“I think people are going to be very pleased with the improvements and the way the plan protects nature,” conservation commission chair Curt Lindberg said.