What is the proposed Ashley Community Forest?
The Ashley property is an historic and ecologically diverse 256-acre parcel of forest land located along the boundary between Sharon and Strafford, Vermont. The land was a keystone parcel to the acreage that David Hall, a Utah developer, was amassing for his out-of-scale NewVistas project. In June of 2018 the property was acquired by the Alliance for Vermont Communities (AVC), a local nonprofit community group, in an effort to block the development. AVC’s intent has always been to give the land to the towns in which it sits, as a shared community forest to be used for recreation, wildlife habitat, historic preservation, timber, scenic beauty, and educational opportunities.
The land was purchased from the Ashley family with help from many generous donors, the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). Fundraising for the project was completed in December 2019.
This spring, with a positive vote from the townspeople of Sharon and Strafford, AVC plans to give the Ashley Community Forest to the two towns along with $20,000 cash to seed a management fund. The vote is being planned for possible May special town meetings.
Where is the Ashley Community Forest?
The Ashley parcel is located in both Sharon and Strafford and is accessed from the south by Clifford Farm Road, or from the north by Nutting Road. It is just south of the Manning Farm and just west of the Robinson Farm. The land has a number of well-constructed farm and logging roads that could easily be developed into recreational trails. There are scenic views from the height of land.
How will the Ashley Community Forest be used?
The Ashley Community Forest would be a working forest, open to the public for hiking, skiing, hunting and other recreational uses. The land is contiguous to other conserved parcels with plans underway for a network of recreational trails. Schools in both Sharon and Strafford are already discussing how to use the land as an educational resource. The Ashley Community Forest has excellent examples of historic stone foundations that date from the first half of the 19th century. The forest and wildlife are both interesting and diverse. It is a perfect place for student exploration of any age.
Who would manage and maintain the Ashley Community Forest?
At present the land is owned and managed by AVC. If the towns accept the gift of this land, the Ashley Community Forest would be owned jointly by both towns. A management plan would be developed with public input and the approval of both towns, the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Management activities on the Ashley Community Forest would be initiated and overseen by two or three citizens appointed by each towns. The Ashley Community Forest Board would be charged with the responsibility to manage and maintain the forest in accordance with the approved management and forestry plans. Initial thinking is that an Ashley Community Forest Fund would be established with the $20,000 cash gift provided by AVC and managed jointly by both towns to fund activities at the forest. Future contributions to the Fund would come from timber sale revenue on the forest, private donations or other sources. In the long-term the Ashley Community Forest is expected be financially self- sustaining.
If the towns accept the gift of this forest, will there be a cost in forgone property taxes?
Yes, based on 2019 property tax rates, it is estimated that each town would forgo $1,000-1,200 per year in property tax if this parcel was owned by the towns and is therefore tax exempt.
Is there enough value in the land and timber to make the ACF self-sustaining?
A cash gift of $20,000 would be provided by AVC to seed the Ashley Community Forest Fund. A 2020 timber assessment placed timber value at approximately $61,600, with annual growth of $1,600-1,700/year over the next 20 years. It is estimated that timber value at the time of transfer to the towns will be approximately $41,000. After the first decade of ownership, and including an estimated $3,500 timber sale, the timber value is expected to have grown to $48,000. After the second decade of ownership, and including an estimated $5,000 timber sale, the timber value is expected to have grown to $57,000. After 30 years of ownership, with careful management of the timber asset of the parcel, it is expected that periodic timber sale revenue, along with continued private support through donations and grants, will fund all normal management expenses of the Ashley Community Forest and make the forest a fully self-sustaining entity. The citizens of both towns, and their visitors, would have full recreational use of a 256-acre forest in perpetuity.
Would accepting the forest cost taxpayers more for liability insurance?
No, the towns’ current liability insurance is adequate.
What is a conservation easement, and would there be an easement on the Ashley Community Forest?
A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement that clearly defines what uses of land are allowed or not allowed. The easement is monitored annually by the easement holder. AVC would place a conservation easement on the Ashley Community Forest before passing ownership to the towns. The easement would allow forestry, agriculture and most outdoor recreational activities and would prohibit subdivision, commercial or recreational development and mining. The easement would be held jointly by Vermont Land Trust (VLT) and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and monitored by VLT.
Who would build and maintain the recreational trails in the Ashley Community Forest?
It is expected that the Ashley Community Forest would have an extensive recreational trail system that would connect with trails on the neighboring conserved properties, creating a recreational attraction that would draw visitors to the area and benefit local businesses. The Ashley Community Forest Board would be responsible for building and maintaining trails, but the Board could employ a third party, such as the Upper Valley Trails Alliance or other trail-building organization, as well as volunteer workers and stewards. The forest would be part of the community, and state and federal grants are available for trail building and recreational purposes. In the Fall of 2019, AVC was awarded at least 2 years of assistance through the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program administered by the National Park Service who will offer guidance to trail development and promotion in the Four Town area.
If the Ashley Community Forest is to remain a working forest, who will organize and supervise forest management activities?
These duties would likely be shared by the Orange and Windsor County Foresters, at no direct cost to the towns. County Foresters are employed by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation and part of their duties include management of community forests upon request. The towns could also hire a private consulting forester.
How would the funds generated from timber sales, and other revenue be used?
All of the revenue from the Ashley Community Forest would be placed in the Ashley Community Forest Fund for use to maintain and improve the property. Allocation of funds would be under the jurisdiction of the appointed Ashley Community Forest Board in accordance with the management plan approved by the two towns.
How will the parking areas be maintained?
Nothing requires that the towns take this responsibility on, but since the principal access road is plowed and maintained to the entrance of the forest, and since the forest would be a municipal ownership, and since citizens of both towns might want the Ashley Community Forest to be accessible to the public in Winter, it would be reasonable to expect the towns might work out some system for plowing and maintaining the road and parking area, as they might do for other town owned facilities.
What if one town declines and the other town votes to accept the gift?
One town would own the 256 acre parcel in its entirety and would pay taxes on the acreage in the other town. Since the land will be in the Current Use Program beginning April 1, 2020, the taxes are estimated to be around $400-500 per year.
What is an Interlocal Agreement?
The towns of Sharon and Strafford would have an Interlocal Agreement for the co-ownership of the Ashley Community Forest. An Interlocal Agreement is a written contract between local government agencies such as a city, a county, a school board or a constitutional office. ECFiber and the Bethel/Royalton Transfer Station are two examples of Interlocal Agreements in our region.