January 10 2017

Selectmen Vote 3-2 Against Endorsing Landlocked Forest Zoning Change to 'Open Space'

By: Rich Hosford

There was some debate at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting over a Town Meeting warrant article that would change the zoning of Burlington’s Landlocked Forest. In the end the board was split as to whether or not to recommend the article be passed by Town Meeting.  


Three members of the public, including Town Meeting Members John Iler and Jonathan Sachs, joined by resident Christine Warren who said she was there on behalf of Town Meeting Member Monte Pearson, who was ill, were at the meeting seeking the selectmen’s endorsement of Article 5 of the January Town Meeting warrant. The article would change the zoning of the 23 parcels of the Landlocked Forest, which total 247 acres, from General Industrial to Open Space.


Pearson, Iler and Sachs, along with Town Meeting Member Joanna Schlansky, authored the article and are working to gather support for it. They point to a 2013 Town Meeting vote on the same article that garnered a majority of support but fell short of the 2/3 vote needed to pass to argue there is a desire among members to see this passed.  


The zoning change would dramatically limit what could be built on the land and, in the eyes of the petitions of the article, reflect the original intent when the town took the parcels by eminent domain in 1985.


“The land was taken to protect water sources and open space so this will reflect the original intent of the eminent domain action,” Iler said. “And because it was taken by eminent domain there is this extra burden of the town’s credibility. If we take it by eminent domain and zone it as General Industrial it looks bad.”


Warren said zoning the land to Open Space still allows some municipal uses if the town desires to use it for them.


“Open Space allows many municipal uses including non-commercial recreation, public water distribution, cemeteries by special permit and public parks with recreation facilities,” she said. “We feel that as long as it is zoned general industrial it is misleading to public and business owners because looks like it could be developed. However based on how town acquired the land it may be far more restricted than people think.”


That last line was a reference to the state designation of the land under Article 97 of the state constitution, Town Administrator John Petrin explained. Under the article land taken by a town for conservation reasons cannot be used for anything else unless the State Legislature approves the change in use by a 2/3 vote.

Still, a majority of the selectmen were opposed to the zoning change.


Selectman Mike Runyan spoke against it most forcefully, arguing that managing the Landlocked Forest has been the purview of the Board of Selectmen for years and that members have worked diligently to protect it.


“The Landlocked parcel is under the care and custody of Board of Selectmen and we take that very seriously,” he said. “The fact that this small group took it upon themselves to submit warrant article before having dialogue with the board is troubling to me. It suggests doubt in our ability to protect it. The proper avenue would be to come here first.”


Runyan added that the town has many infrastructure needs and that limiting the town’s ability to use the parcels, if necessary, was not the right decision.  


“We have been wracking our brains for last five years to meet the needs of our infrastructure,” he said. “We have had to go out and purchase private lands and this additional level of protection would only further tie our hands if a further need arises. This property is adequately protected under Article 97 in my view and any use other than what is currently allowed would have to meet legislative approval. We may have other ideas for municipal uses that under Open Space would not be allowed.”

“ I think it is rather selfish for a small group to lay claim to the entire parcel,” he concluded. “It is is a large piece of land and certainly part of it needs protection but not the entire parcel.”


Warren said she thought this action was the “opposite of selfish” and that conserving the forest was for the benefit of future generations.


Selectmen Joe Morandi and Chris Hartling said they agree with Runyan.


“Michael said it the best,” Morandi said. “If I could give him a standing ovation I would. I can’t add anything to it.”


Selectman Bob Hogan said he wanted everyone to be clear that there were no plans to sell the property to private parties and that no developer was trying to persuade the town to do so. He said the last time that happened was during a failed bid by an entity called Patriot Partners in 2008.


Board Chairman Daniel Grattan said he was in favor of the zoning change. He said it was possible the town would want to use some of the land in the future for something not allowed under Open Space zoning and that he liked the idea of having to get a 2/3 majority of Town Meeting for the town to do so.


“That is a burden but that’s what zoning does, it provides encumbrances,” he said.


Petrin suggested that since there is no current interest in selling or any buyer pushing for a purchase the town could create a committee to look at the Landlocked Forest and its zoning in more detail. That group could, he said, decide what future needs the town may have and balance those with the desire to conserve the forest by possibly creating a new zoning designation.


This is not like in the past when we were talking about allowing an outside use,” he said. “We want to know what’s best for the town and we could develop a proposal that everyone agrees to.”


Members of the board expressed interest in that proposal.


In the end the board voted 3-2 to recommend against the warrant article. Runyan, Hartling and Morandi voted against recommending it and Grattan and Hogan voted in favor of recommending it.


Reached on Tuesday, Pearson said he believes Town Meeting should approve the article to protect the forest in case a developer should take interest.


“I think the reason to change the zoning is take the ‘or sale’ sign off the land and formally recognize that it will be used for open space and town purposes,” he said. “After that is done that town has two hundreds of years to come up with other ideas.


He also said he would be for the committee suggested by Petrin to come up with a solution that would work to meet both the town’s needs and for those looking to conserve the forest. He added he’d be willing to be a part of that discussion.


“I think that if the town has a good plan for using it in various ways, that’s fine,” he said. “We can go ahead and sit down and do that but I think we need to begin by saying it is Open Space and is a piece of land only for town use and not open to be sold to a developer with big pockets.”


He also suggested that the town’s bylaw on Open Space could be changed to allow municipal uses.


Finally, last Thursday the Planning Board voted 7-0 to recommend the article be passed.

Town Meeting will convene at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, January 23.  


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