Pownal seeking legal access to 700-acre town owned parcel

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POWNAL — The town has owned more than 700 acres of mountainside forestland along the Taconic Range for more than a decade, but legal questions over access to the property have repeatedly thwarted plans for a recreation area.

Select Board members think those hurdles will soon be cleared, however, following a meeting May 4 with the town's forestry consultant, Bruce Richardson. He has been researching deeds to properties in the area because the board wants to seek bids to harvest sections of timber.

In a preliminary report considered substantially complete, Richardson said he had found access routes the town apparently holds on both the north and south ends of the approximately 735 acres.

The property generally follows the north-south Taconic ridgeline just east of the New York border, and extends easterly downslope to near the Hoosic River. The land also provides access to the interstate Taconic Crest hiking trail.

"We feel we do have access," said board Chairman Nelson Brownell, adding that a review of the deeds by legal counsel might still be required at some point.

Richardson reported that "there is no question" of two points of access on the northern end of the property, Brownell said, referring to access off the end of Snake Hill Road and via Woods Road, which has sustained erosion damage in recent years and is not currently passable for vehicles.

At the southern edge of the land, off Dean Road, there are references in deeds to rights-of-way in the area of the gravel operation, Brownell said.

He said board members will first speak to the adjacent property owners about agreements for both hiking trail and logging road access, but officials now believe Pownal has always had legal rights-of-way that could be enforced through legal action, if necessary, Brownell said.

The land was previously owned by the Pownal Tanning Co., which in 1937 inherited a former textile mill complex between the Hoosic and Route 346 at the intersection of Dean Road close to the North Pownal Bridge. The tannery went out of business in 1988, and the mill site and about 28 acres of surrounding property were declared a federal Superfund site and cleaned up during a $7 million, multi-year project

The forest lands apparently were acquired in segments by the business owners over the years, in part because the factory maintained a mountainside reservoir in the watershed, which supplied a now-defunct water system extending to the mill and to homes in the village of North Pownal.

The former factory site and nearby acreage also was acquired by the town after an agreement that held it harmless for any lingering environmental issues. During the federal Superfund cleanup, the rambling 19th century brick mill was razed, and the town created a riverside park at the site with the intention of providing trail and road links to the mountainside parcels.

The land is especially suited for recreation trails because it runs along, and at one point crosses the Taconic Crest Trail, a 37- mile hiking trail that extends south from Petersburgh, N.Y., at Route 346 into Vermont, and then into Berkshire County, Mass., terminating at Route 20 below Pittsfield, Mass.

However, since 2002, when the property was conveyed to the town, questions lingered about the town's legal access, and there were several failed attempts to reach agreements on rights-of-way, officials said.

In 2004, a recreation plan was prepared to create multiple trails emanating from the riverside park site, but Recreation Committee members reported four years later than the only possible accessways did not appear feasible.

Woods Road, leading up to the reservoir site, had partially eroded and was no longer passable by vehicles. Another possible access to the south off Dean Road and through the former Barlow gravelyard did not appear to be available to the town. Attempts to negotiate a right-of-way across a former farm pasture at the end of Snake Hill Road also fell through.

Ownership to at least two of the key adjacent properties also has changed over the years, complicating the negotiations, Brownell said.

When the property was acquired, the town entered into a deed restriction agreement with the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which supplied grant funding to help meet the reported $210,000 purchase price.

The recorded deed restrictions granted to those entities state in part: "The principal objectives are to conserve recreational opportunities for the benefit of the public and to establish and maintain productive forestry resources on the protected property," and to "encourage long-term professional management of those resources and to facilitate the economically sustainable production of forest resources in a manner that minimizes negative impact" on surface water quality, recreational benefits to the public, wildlife habitat and other conservation goals.

The detailed conservation agreement also calls for managing forest stands for long rotations that maximize the opportunity for high quality logs while "maintaining a healthy and biologically diverse forest."

Reached this week, Elise Annes, vice president for community relations with the land trust, said the intent of the agreement "very clearly is to protect recreational opportunities to benefit the public," and to maintain productive forestry resources on the land.

The conservation restriction notes that the property contains 707 acres of managed forest, 2,000 feet of frontage on the Hoosic River, and is traversed by 6,700 feet of streams in what is called Halifax Hollow — to the south — and Reservoir Hollow, at the north end of the land.

Permitted uses for the land include hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, fishing, and other non-motorized uses.

The use of all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, bicycles, horse riding can be allowed "provided adequate provision for the regulation of such uses is made in the [required] Management Plan and is consistent" with the purposes of the restriction.

In meeting the $210,000 purchase price for the land, the town mounted a fund-raising effort among residents and received a $162,500 Vermont Housing and Conservation Board grant, other federal grant funds and money from the sale of about 55 acres of former factory land on the east side of Route 346, according to a Bennington Banner report in 2002.

The 55-acre parcel was transferred to The Nature Conservancy, which maintains it as a preserve known as Quarry Hill Natural Area. The site, which once included a limestone quarry, is home to more than 40 rare, threatened or endangered plants, according to the organization.

The site has since been expanded in size and now encompasses more than 100 acres.

More information about the Taconic Crest Trail can be found on the Taconic Hiking Club's website, at http://taconichikingclub.org

Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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