BERLIN — The Conservation Commission hasn’t held a warned meeting since mid-June, but that hasn’t stopped the panel from firing off letters — one in July and two in August — complaining about “unapproved” work on a snowmobile trail that will run up Irish Hill and through the town forest this winter.
That procedural misstep seemed more troubling to Select Board members Monday night than allegations volunteers have repeatedly violated verbal and written agreements while working on the board-approved snowmobile trail.
Among other things, the letters the commission sent to representatives of the Select Board, the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, claim VAST volunteers cut more than 200 trees without permission, unilaterally altered the previously discussed route, and prematurely started work in the sensitive southern-most section of the Irish Hill property that is home to the Berlin Town Forest.
What’s it mean?
It means Town Administrator Vince Conti is suddenly the middle man in a passive-aggressive dispute between a commission whose members were never wild about the idea of a snowmobile trail on the Irish Hill property and the Select Board that endorsed it.
The letters didn’t help matters and neither did the fact none of the commission’s members attended Monday night’s board meeting to discuss the issues they raised.
David Rouleau, president of the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, was there and so was Black Road resident Josh Walker, who successfully lobbied the board to open Irish Hill and the town forest for snowmobile use.
Rouleau, like Conti, was copied on all three letters while Walker got the one dated July 1, but neither of the two dated Aug. 8.
Who authorized the drafting and sending of the letters was a point of concern for Board Chair Justin Lawrence and board member John Quinn III, who referenced the commission’s past problems with Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
Quinn said there is no evidence the commission met since June 16 — before any of the problems cited in the letter had occurred.
“It’s very unclear how decisions are being made,” he said, suggesting it was impossible to tell whether the letters written on the commission’s behalf were the product of one rogue member or all of them.
Conti, who found himself in the odd spot of speaking for the commission after learning shortly before the meeting that none of its members would be able to attend, couldn’t supply the answer. There was no evidence, he conceded, that the board-appointed commission had met in the past two months. He later explained the commission was scheduled to meet this week, but that session had been canceled.
While getting everyone in the same room — even if some attended remotely — would have been helpful Monday night given the nature of concerns raised in the commission’s letters, Conti said an on-site meeting involving members of the commission, representatives of VAST and the town was crucial.
Lawrence was ready to schedule it Monday night, but agreed to let Conti make the arrangements on Tuesday instead.
Lawrence said he was “shocked” to see the letters, and concerned the “advisory” commission might have overstepped its authority, violated the Open Meeting Law or both.
Lawrence praised VAST for recently replacing a failing bridge near the base of the trail and complained there was no flurry of letters that followed a local mountain bike group’s decision to create trails on the Irish Hill property without the town’s permission.
“It makes me feel like they’re picking on one crew, and I’m going to say that publicly,” Lawrence said referring to commission members.
Though the commission wasn’t there to outline its concerns, the letters detail work on the town forest portion of the property briefly started in June — months before it should have started in order to protect soils and prevent plant disturbance in the “Rich Northern Hardwood Forest.”
Conti acknowledged volunteers briefly started work in that area — crossing his property to get there — but immediately stopped when they were told the work would have to wait until after Sept. 1.
“They haven’t done anything (in the town forest) since,” he said.
Conti said he “didn’t count the stumps” but didn’t dispute the commission’s assertion that more than 200 trees were cut down along a section of the trail that isn’t in the town forest. He stood by that assessment when contacted for clarification on Tuesday.
“The number is probably accurate,” he said. “The description is probably not.”
Most of the trees — even according to the commission — were between 3 and 6 inches in diameter, though Conti said many were no bigger around than his thumb.
Fewer than 10 of the trees were more than 10 inches in diameter and Conti said it wasn’t their removal that was in dispute it was the perceived lack of pre-approval. The same, he said, was true of a decision to deviate from a route that was flagged much earlier in the process, though it still relies on old logging roads.
With the exception of the town forest section, Conti said all but the last ½-mile of the trail had been cleared and the rest of that part of the work had been approved.
Conti said the town forest section will be the subject of a site visit with members of the commission and Rouleau at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Acknowledging a “breakdown in communication” without assessing any blame, Conti said walking the property with members of the commission and Rouleau will create clear expectations for navigating the most sensitive section of the town-owned land. It won’t, he said, stop the completion of the trail.
“It’s a done deal,” Conti said. “It’s approved. It’s going to happen.”