Bennington is a remarkably diverse community with a long and storied history. The Town of nearly 16,000 residents played an important role in the state’s earliest history as the base of the fabled Green Mountain Boys. Today, it continues to play an important role as a cultural, commercial and manufacturing center for Bennington County. Despite its size and economic importance to the region, much of the Town’s 27,155 acres remains forested and largely undeveloped. This is due partly to a forward thinking land use plan designed to focus development within a designated urban growth area, maintain the rural character of the surrounding landscape, and prevent development in undeveloped areas not served by roads and utilities.
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Bennington’s urban growth area is located in a bowl formed by the Walloomsac River and surrounded by the Green Mountains to the east and Mountain Anthony and other upland areas to the west. Those higher elevations are largely undeveloped due to steep slopes, a lack of road access and active management for forest products. That forest land is home to critical wildlife habitat, provides important economic and recreational opportunities, and forms the background to many scenic viewsheds.
Despite a history of limited development, pressures to convert hunting camps, and to subdivide woodlots into house-sites, has intensified in recent years. The Planning Commission, however, was concerned that allowing forest fragmentation and associated residential development could undermine many of the resource values that are so important to the community. In the 1990s, the Town adopted a Town Plan that proposed a Forest District. According to the Plan’s land use policies and recommendations:
The Forest Districts shall remain free of development. Forestry and recreational uses are appropriate in this area. Seasonal camps and telecommunication facilities are permitted provided adverse impacts on the environment and scenic resources are avoided. Conservation initiatives involving property tax relief for private owners or acquisition of important resource lands by the United States Forest Service shall be supported by the Town.
Among the issues that the Commission struggled with was how to establish a district that met its goals and allow the continuation of small seasonal hunting camps in the district. The camps were consistent with the purpose of the plan, but raised enforcement consideration as other communities have seen seasonal homes convert to year-round dwellings over time. Rather than addressing this through standards related to occupancy, the Town opted to limit seasonal camps by a maximum floor space, above ground foundation and type of septic system. This makes the prohibition of year round dwellings easily enforceable.
- In order to maintain large tracts of undeveloped forest land, it is appropriate – if not necessary –for a community to limit the fragmentation associated with residential development.
- To allow seasonal camps while prohibiting their conversion to year-round dwellings, it is best for regulations to regulate the physical characteristics of the camp, rather than attempting to regulate length of occupancy.