As trees fall, residents make last-ditch effort to halt construction of new Colchester leisure center – VTDigger

a bulldozer in the middle of a forest clearing.
Loggers clear trees in Bayside-Hazelett Forest in Colchester on Tuesday 27 June. The city plans to build a recreation center on the site. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As trees are being cleared to make way for a $16 million recreation center in Colchester’s Bayside-Hazelett Forest Area, a group of residents long concerned about the project’s environmental impact are making a last-ditch effort to stop the construction.

Claiming that the city’s application bypassed the permitting process of Act 250 governing land use and development in Vermont, the group sent a 10-page letter to District 4’s Environmental Commission on Monday, asking it to review the project. .

Specifically, opponents point to impacts on the approximately 14-acre Bayside-Hazelett Woods, which state studies classify as a rare and irreplaceable sandy lowland forest.

They are confident that if a Statute 250 permit is sought, it could be denied based on the undue adverse effect the project would have on the relatively small remnant of sandy lowland forest that remains in Vermont, said Brice Simon, an attorney who has submitted the request the name of the group.

a couple of people standing in the woods.
Brett Engstrom and Lori Barg watch as trees are felled in Bayside-Hazelett Forest in Colchester on Tuesday. Barge said she was saddened that the trees were being cut down. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Kaitlin Hayes, the District 4 coordinator, confirmed that she had received the request and was considering it. She is awaiting information from the city and could make a decision next week, Hayes said.

The commission’s earlier opinion in April determined that the city did not need a Law 250 permit for the recreation center site because less than 10 acres would be disturbed. Residents say officials should also consider two other urban projects located nearby, which collectively would hit the 10-acre threshold to trigger a revision of Law 250.

Although the recreation center project as currently authorized by the Colchester Development Review Board individually purports to involve only 4.92 acres of disturbed land, the letter said, the city has acknowledged that the project could not go ahead without the planned expansion of the sewer system involving 6.3 hectares of disturbed land.

City officials say they are complying with state law and do not intend to stop work on the site, located along Blakely Road and across from Laker Lane on East Lakeshore Drive. An environmental officer from the Natural Resources Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation, inspected the site this week but has not yet completed a report. According to city manager Aaron Frank, the officer found nothing of concern.

On Town Meeting Day in March, residents voted 1,763 to 1,316 to approve a $6.9 million bond to help pay for the recreation center, to be built by spring 2025 on city-owned woodlands in central position.

a man holding a handful of earth in his hand.
Brett Engstrom holds a handful of sandy soil. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The two-story building would have a 19,000-square-foot footprint and nearly 30,000 square feet of usable space, according to plans.

In an interview, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department ecologist Robert Backpack said the trees in question support many rare plant species in Vermont, including many that are listed by the state as threatened or endangered. The forest, Backpack said, is important to the state.

But Frank, the city manager, said in an email that the intention was never to conserve the land. The city bought the property with voter approval in 2004 to build a community center, he said.

There has been a more than 20-year effort to bring this project to fruition with more than 90 different public meetings, he noted.

He also said that Colchester has nearly 11,000 acres of state-owned natural resource land and water, which he says is 7.4 times more than the average Vermont city.

The letter has the support of around 20 people, 11 of whom are Colchester residents. They include ecologists, naturalists and biology professors who believe the recreation center design is inconsistent with city or regional plans and can only be adequately addressed with a proper analysis and finding of Law 250 jurisdiction, according to the letter.

Among them is Lori Barg, a consultant geologist who lives in Colchester. Barg said she entered the forest on Monday when she heard bulldozers and was concerned to see heavy machinery felling and felling large trees near East Lakeshore Drive and Malletts Bay.

This prompted it to send a cease and desist letter to city officials, accusing the city of violating its permit by accessing the project via the unapproved access on East Lakeshore Drive.

The area being logged off East Lakeshore Drive is the utility corridor to serve the recreation center and does not require a permit, Frank said Thursday.

a group of people standing around each other.
Brett Engstrom, from left, Jeffrey Conley and Lori Barg watch as trees are felled in Bayside-Hazelett Forest. Conley’s property adjoins the site. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Cathyann LaRose, the planning and zoning director, said she received Barg’s email and went to visit the site and found no violations. The work appears to line up with what the council approved, she wrote in an email Thursday.

The initial logging work is expected to be completed by July 31 and will not exceed the limits outlined in the permit (Colchester Development Review Board), Frank wrote.

Opponents to the plan suggest nearby Bayside Park is a better place for a new leisure center and would not involve cutting down trees.

The city’s planning department has more than once recommended that this recreation center be built at the top of Bayside Park, said Jack Scully, a former board chairman who signed the letter. We are in favor of a leisure center but not at the expense of clearing a forest.

In response to growing concerns, Frank called the letter’s authors a small group and not the majority of residents.

We avoided nothing, he wrote. There is a voluntary process for asking whether a project falls under the jurisdiction of Act 250. We didn’t have to do that. But we did, and Act 250 confirmed that the project was outside their jurisdiction.

Residents also appealed the city permit for the project in April and the case remains in environment court. The city filed a motion to dismiss on May 5 and the judge has yet to issue a decision, according to a clerk. City officials did not respond to questions about the legal challenge.

a forest filled with many trees and plants.
City Manager Aaron Frank said the city purchased the property with voter approval in 2004 to build a community center. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As they watch and wait, some residents fear more than half of the forest is already gone. City officials have not responded to questions about exactly how much of the forest the bulldozers are clearing.

Phyllis Bryden, who lives three doors down on East Lakeshore Drive, from where trucks have been entering the forest since Friday, said the clearing is so large it’s as if a large spaceship had just landed there and exploded.

Barg, who recently spotted a Coopers hawk in the forest, said he was heartbroken.

I can’t believe the city worked really hard not to protect a rare and endangered forest, he said. Because once you’ve paved heaven, you can’t take it back.

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