The State of Vermont Environmental Court dealt a blow to developers and a victory to bobcats, yellow oak trees, and other diverse plant communities in Shelburne in a recently-issued decision denying 25 single-family homes on 34 heavily forested acres on the west side of Route 7 north of the village behind Rice Lumber.

More than two years after local citizens challenged the Planning Commission’s approval of the proposed subdivision, the Court agreed with the citizens – represented by Calais Attorney Stephanie Kaplan – that the unique natural resources on and adjacent to the site should be protected from over-development.

The Court ruled that the Shelburne zoning by-laws and town plan require the protection of the Dry Oak-Hickory-Hophorn beam forest on the property which contains an uncommon species of tree, the yellow oak, a diverse population of unusual ferns, mosses and wildflowers and unusual rock outcroppings. The Court also ruled that the adjacent cliffs that afford – in the Court’s words – “extraordinary habitat” for bobcats, must be protected. The cliffs are close to the LaPlatte River Marsh area owned by The Nature Conservancy.

The proposed housing development at Rice Woods was first brought before the Shelburne Planning Commission three years ago when developers presented plans for a 62-unit Planned Residential Development (PRD) on land owned by Rice Lumber. At that time the Shelburne Natural Resources and Conservation Committee (SNRCC), a non-regulatory advisory body, expressed concern about the impact the proposed development would have on significant plant and animal communities, including a stand of yellow (chinquapin) oak trees located in the heart of the property. They also questioned whether the bobcat population in the area would be able to be sustained in the face of the high density housing development.

In May 2003 the Planning Commission granted unanimous approval and the project was set to proceed when, at the urging of photographer Arieh Tal, a number of concerned citizens joined together to appeal the decision to the Vermont Environmental Court.

“Rice Woods is an excellent example of an intact ecological community of uncommon plants and animals,” notes Andrea Van Hoven, SNRCC Chair. “Across Vermont, bit-by-bit and year-by-year, we are losing more and more of these critical pieces of habitat to fragmentation by development. Shelburne is extremely fortunate to have many wonderful natural resources but, as a gateway to Burlington, the development pressures here are tremendous. We are heartened that the Environmental Court confirmed that Shelburne’s zoning regulations and town plan require that these natural resources be protected.”

While denying the single-family portion on the northern 2/3 of the property, the Court approved 37 multi-family units on 7 seven acres at the southerly end in an area that does not contain significant natural resources, provided that site work is conducted in a way that minimizes impacts on the resident bobcat population’s habitat in the adjacent cliffs. Construction in this area would not have an adverse impact on the forest to the north or the cliff to the west, as long as both the forest and the cliff are protected from intrusion by the residents of the units, the Court found.

The Court suggested that the developers might be able to redesign the single-family area in a way that protects the natural resources. Shelburne residents are committed to staying involved so that any development that may be proposed for that area is severely restricted to ensure the sustainability of the natural resources and bobcats.

The citizens of Shelburne have a long history of supporting conservation of the town’s natural resources, as illustrated by the recent establishment of the Open Space Fund. “The Court’s decision makes it clear that development of large portions of the property is inappropriate and does not comply with our Town Plan or Zoning By-Laws,” asserts Sue Dixon an active member of the group Save Rice Woods. “We are going to do everything possible to make sure that any development on this site absolutely protects the important natural resources and bobcat habitat, in compliance with our town’s regulations.”

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