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– RESOURCE EXPLAINED – VNRC and Fish & Wildlife Issue Report – A Decade of Progress: Wildlife Considerations in Local Planning

Vermonters overwhelmingly want to conserve wildlife habitat such as deeryards, trout streams, and bear habitat. Cities and towns have made noticeable strides in improving attention to wildlife habitat and natural resource conservation, and nearly every municipality recognizes wildlife habitat as an important local resource, according to a recent report issued by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

The report, Wildlife Considerations in Local Planning – An Evaluation of a Decade of Progress in Vermont, was based on a detailed assessment of all municipal plans and related zoning bylaws and subdivision regulations adopted by Vermont communities.

While most towns  recommend the conservation of wildlife habitat in their municipal plans, the report documents a significant lag between plan recommendations and actual implementation of binding standards in local bylaws.

The report demonstrates that towns overwhelmingly recognize the public benefits of wildlife habitat. Over the past decade, municipalities have made many gains in mapping and recommending protection of wildlife habitat in municipal plans. The report credits the work of the Fish and Wildlife Department and technical assistance providers in increasing the availability of resources for towns.

“Community outreach and technical assistance for land use planning is a priority for us,” said John Austin a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “This report affirms the many benefits of the Department’s Community Wildlife Program and technical assistance from organizations like Regional Planning Commissions and non-profits like Vermont Natural Resources Council and others,” Austin added.

In light of these positive findings, the authors found there is a noticeable disconnect between what wildlife values Vermonters say they want to conserve and the actual implementation of those goals in zoning and subdivision regulations. The report recommends that the state and others continue to help communities bridge the gap between their planning vision and the implementation of that vision. In addition, the report suggests that municipalities need to pay more attention to specific concepts that affect  wildlife and habitat conservation, such as habitat fragmentation, habitat connectivity, invasive species, and climate change.  The information highlights the importance of wildlife and land to Vermonters and draws a connection to the myriad of interests including hunters, anglers, trappers, hikers, bird watchers, local schools, and many more.

“Over the past several years, more and more Vermonters, through their town plans, have clearly and repeatedly said, ‘our wildlife heritage is important’ – now there is a need for on-the-ground work to assure those values are reflected in specific municipal policies,” said Jamey Fidel, VNRC’s general counsel and forest and biodiversity program director. “This is especially true in light of Vermont Supreme Court guidance that instructs that towns must be very specific with natural resource and wildlife habitat conservation and protection policies,” added Fidel.

Vermont relies heavily on local government for land use planning. For instance, according to an in-depth review of subdivision activity in eight towns conducted by VNRC, just five of 380 subdivision proposals were subject to Act 250 jurisdiction.

“Decisions about the long-term health of the state’s wildlife habitat lie largely in the hands of local boards, commissions and private landowners, who meet in our town halls and school cafeterias,” said Jens Hawkins-Hilke, a conservation planning biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “These very busy and committed volunteers have day jobs, families, and in many cases need additional technical assistance to implement their town’s vision for its wildlife.”

According to VNRC and the Fish and Wildlife Department, there needs to be a shift from planning to implementation over the next 10 years. “There is a huge need for more technical assistance as we shift towards implementation given that decisions are made at a local level by volunteers on planning commissions and development review boards,” said Brian Shupe, Deputy Director of VNRC.

The report is the result of months of detailed, technical, and comprehensive review of 248 town plans, 219 municipal zoning regulations, 204 zoning bylaws, and 137 subdivision regulations. The report compared results from a similar study performed ten years ago, and offers specific findings and recommendations.

To read the report and its recommendations go to either the VNRC’s website (VNRC.org) or the Vermont Fish and Wildlife website (vtfishandwildlife.com).

About VNRC

The Vermont Natural Resources Council is an independent, member-based, nonprofit research, education, and advocacy organization founded in 1963 to protect Vermont’s environment, economy, and quality of life.

About the Vt Fish and Wildlife Department

The MISSION of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the people of Vermont. www.vtfishandwildlife.com

Editors:  A summary of the report findings are provided below.:

Municipalities have improved attention to wildlife conservation through land use plans:

·      Ninety-nine percent of municipal plans identify wildlife habitat as an important resource.

·      Ninety-nine percent of municipal plans identify some form of habitat or wildlife feature (an increase of 8% from 2000).

·      Ninety-one percent of town plans include mapped data (up from 52% in 2000.)

·      Eighty-seven percent of all municipal plans recommend the protection of wildlife habitat.

·      Eighty-six percent of plans include some form of natural resource inventory data (up 11% from 2000.)

·      Eighty-three percent of municipal plans note public benefits associated with wildlife habitat (up from 62% in 2000).

·      Only half of municipal plans identify the effect of habitat fragmentation on wildlife habitat (42% note the importance of habitat connectivity and travel corridors)

·      Just two percent identify the importance and/or relevance of climate change effects on wildlife habitat

Local zoning lags behind municipal plans·

·      A small percentage of the zoning bylaws reviewed contain conditional use standards or site plan requirements that mention wildlife habitat or specific wildlife related considerations.

·      Of the 211 zoning bylaws reviewed, 88% include conditional use standards, but only 17% of these standards mention wildlife habitat.

·      75% of zoning bylaws include site plan requirements, but only 18% of these standards mention wildlife habitat.

·      51% include some form of conservation district (49% of which mention wildlife habitat).

·      39% include explicit riparian buffers (the average buffer width was 42 feet)

·      22% include a forest reserve district (40% of which specifically mention wildlife habitat).

·      2% of the municipalities include a specific definition of “wildlife habitat” in their zoning bylaws.

·      1% of the municipalities (3 municipalities) include a wildlife habitat overlay district.

Subdivision regulations are an increasingly important tool for conserving habitat:

·      Of the 133 subdivision regulations reviewed, 89% include planning standards, 46% of which mention wildlife habitat.

·      51% of municipalities in Vermont have subdivision regulations; however only 8% of these municipalities include a specific definition of wildlife habitat in these regulations.