On Nov. 10, Wolcott voted overwhelmingly to approve the town’s purchase of land that will become the town forest.
But what the town ended up voting on was potentially a much larger forest than most of the informational material identified leading up to the vote. In both the pre-vote warning and in a flyer sent out just before the vote, the amount of land the town asked its voters to approve shot up from 307 to 706 acres.
The purchase of land passed overwhelmingly regardless of the last-minute changes, with 110 yes votes and just 38 no votes.
In the last days preceding the vote, the town and the Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit that helped the town with the purchase of the town forestland, decided to include an additional 400 acres of potential land in the Nov. 10 vote, even though its current owners have declined to sell to the town at this time.
In doing so, Wolcott now has a wide berth to purchase the land, should it become available, without calling for another vote, a process that costs the town approximately $500, according to Belinda Clegg, the town clerk.
In a flyer sent out by the Trust for Public Land a few days before the vote was held, the potential additional 400 acres was identified in a map outlining the 307 acres the town was sure to purchase and Wolcott residents were urged to vote yes.
In promotional material and an interview with the News & Citizen before the vote, neither Wolcott Selectboard Chair Linda Martin or the Trust For Public Land made mention of another 400 acres of land the town wanted to purchase.
Even after a News & Citizen article published on Oct. 21 identified the amount of land the town was proposing to purchase — with 307 acres in an article headline — Martin declined to correct the information even after she informed the paper that it had erred by publishing the wrong day — March Town Meeting Day — for the meeting. The newspaper issued a correction in print, online and on social media before the November vote.
When asked, Martin said she was “pretty upset” about the voting date error and “tried to be polite” by just focusing on correcting that error and therefore failed to correct the paper on the total potential acreage voters were going to be asked to approve.
“The Trust for Public Land has a commitment from a landowner for 307 acres. They have been in contact with another landowner to sell an additional 399 acres. That landowner has not agreed to sell yet. They were going back and forth deciding. (The Trust) reviewed the warning for town meeting and requested the total acreage be included even though it is not a done deal,” Martin said.
Kate Wanner, the Trust for Public Land representative who helped the town with the town forest purchase process, advised Martin to phrase the vote that way to allow the town flexibility to expand the initial purchase should the extra land be made available.
“When we got to the town vote, we didn’t want to completely shut off the opportunity for the potential of that acquisition,” Wanner said. “We still don’t know whether the property can be included in the community forest, but we didn’t want to vote on a smaller acreage and then not have the ability to add it if it was something that did move forward in future.”
Wanner clarified that, regardless of whether the forest expands to the potential size approved by voters, the land would still be acquired through American Rescue Plan Act funds and other avenues of funding the trust would help secure. The amount Wolcott will pay toward the land’s acquisition — $25,000 — will also remain the same.
Wanner also said the Wolcott Selectboard could decline to purchase the additional acreage. The vote simply leaves the door open for the town; it doesn’t require them to make the purchase.
She said the trust typically likes to have the total acreage of a town forest nailed down before calling a vote, but the need to have the forest approved by voters by the end of November in order to qualify the town for a trail-building grant for the initial 307 acres forced it to act.
For any Wolcott residents concerned about removing over 700 acres from the Wolcott grand list, Wanner preached the benefits a town forest will bring to the town.
“You’re not having to supply municipal services to those properties,” Wanner said. “If they had gotten subdivided and developed, there’s been multiple studies that show towns with more conserved land have less overall tax need for municipal services than ones that have less conserved land.
“The other thing that I usually tell towns is that there’s been numerous studies that show that properties adjacent or near to public land, particularly with trail networks, have an increase of anywhere from 10 to 15 percent in their value when they decide to sell. So that also has a positive effect on the grand list over time.”