Opinion – Wildlife habitat

Driving through our town, Charlotte still has some of that bucolic small town feel that attracted me to live here half a lifetime ago. But with increasing development pressure, that may very well change in the years to come. I shudder to think that before long we’ll look like our neighbor to the north.

Some contend that development can be done to suit our natural aesthetics by tucking new homes out of sight into the woods and away from main roads. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of our wild neighbors, the current residents of those very woods. Are we only concerned with preserving the look of the town, or do we actually care that some of it remain truly wild?

I for one do. As an active board member of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition, a statewide wildlife advocacy organization, as well as a member of our Park and Wildlife Refuge committee, I have made protecting wildlife an integral part of my life.

Vermont loses thousands of acres of wildlife habitat every year to development and, according to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, habitat loss and fragmentation are some of the biggest threats to wildlife and ecosystems. Some species require large tracts of forested land, something we have little of in Charlotte. Placing housing developments next to forested habitat, even if it doesn’t result in the outright destruction of the forest, creates undesirable edge effects that result in animal behavior modification across a wide range of species. The disruption to nesting and foraging grounds, which inevitably occurs when you put a road right through the middle of them, has an outsized negative impact on wildlife. And the domestic animals that accompany these developments add a predatory factor into the equation, as studies have shown that free-roaming cats are detrimental to birds, while dogs will chase and sometimes kill wild animals as large as deer.

For your consideration, is the new development on 125 Lake Road currently under review by the Planning Commission? While I give the developers, Patricia O’Donnell and Jim Donavan, a lot of credit for keeping the majority of the 124-acre parcel undeveloped, the placement of the nine-unit PRD right next to the forested habitat is problematic. At a minimum, there will be 18 and potentially as many as 60-plus people living there, as well as a number of domestic cats and dogs.

Furthermore, the new residents will be able to use the forested habitat for recreation, putting even more pressure on the resident wild animals, which will have no choice but to retreat. Some species will, of course, adapt, and this might cause conflicts with their new human neighbors. Conflicts that the animals will inevitably lose.

When questioned about the PRD’s placement, the developers of 125 Lake Road cited two existing developments as precedent—Ten Stones Circle and Champlain Valley Cohousing. Indeed, these types of cohousing can create wonderful neighborhoods and safe environments for children to grow up in. Both are well hidden from view, tucked in behind tree lines, but while Ten Stones Circles tried to stay close to Greenbush Road, Champlain Valley Cohousing’s access road is almost half a mile long and runs right through the center to the far reaches of the 125-acre property where the housing was constructed. Even though 115 acres remain conserved for wildlife corridor and farming, the wildlife habitat was severely compromised and then dealt another blow when the Charlotte Town Link Trail was added into the mix. This surely could have been circumvented by locating the development closer to Greenbush Road, where it would have avoided ripping up the landscape and saved tons of money in road construction and utility placement, plus savings on gas for driving and snow plowing, among other things.

Once approved, something similar will happen on 125 Lake Road and another precedent for out-of-sight PRDs will be created, inviting other developers to do the same.

Our town has done a great job with land use regulations, but they need to be continuously revisited and improved. I call upon the Planning Commission to clearly define where PRDs ought to be located in order to minimize their negative impact on wildlife habitat.