Accessible river trail project mired in regulatory weeds

By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer

Ongoing efforts to make a third of a mile stretch at the trailhead of the Ottauquechee River Trail (ORT) at Woodstock’s East End Park accessible to people with disabilities have descended into controversy amidst a maze of potential regulatory, permitting, conservation, and funding issues.

One thing is certain: removal of undergrowth, dead trees, and alleged invasive species from the riparian buffer along the Ottauquechee River next to East End Park has raised the ire of conservationists and threatened to derail a state grant, initially sought in 2021, that could bring as much as $280,000 into town coffers “to support natural resource projects that provide for water quality restoration and protection,” as Michael Caduto, the executive director of Sustainable Woodstock, wrote in a letter to the Standard that appeared in the May 18 edition. Sustainable Woodstock collaborated with the Town of Woodstock in writing the grant application to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) Water Infrastructure Sponsorship Program (WISPr). One high-priority project proposed for the grant funding, Caduto confirmed last week, would enable the Village of Woodstock to purchase and preserve the riparian floodplain immediately adjacent to East End Park.

Voicing his deep-seated concern about the project and its impact on the floodplain, Caduto wrote, “Without Sustainable Woodstock’s knowledge, recent work has been conducted in this floodplain that has unfortunately removed all of the vegetation except for some specimen trees; the activity has greatly diminished the ecological functions and benefits of both the buffer and floodplain,” the conservation activist alleged. “Plans are now being discussed with the landowner and the (ANR) with the goal of replanting and restoring the area, which must be done if the conservation project is to proceed.”

The 1.23-acre tract in question is owned by the Woodstock Resort Corporation (WRC), which had granted the ORT organization the right to have the river trail begin at its property just below the town park. At the time that the original WISPr grant was filed in 2021, Woodstock Village officials, spearheaded by Trustee Jeffrey Kahn, hoped to use a flat portion of the tract that sits on a rise above the floodplain as a small parking lot for East End Park visitors. It was Kahn who first brought the issue of ORT’s ongoing work on the trailhead and the impact it could have on the WISPr grant to public attention at the Village Board of Trustees meeting on May 9. 

At issue is the fact that commencing on April 24, according to ORT spokesperson Tom Weschler, trail organization volunteers began removing vegetation — much of which Weschler deemed “invasive species” and “widowmaker” (or dead) trees from a portion of the WRC-owned property. In a series of interviews last week through Monday afternoon, Weschler repeatedly stated that he had the verbal permission of Woodstock Director of Planning and Zoning Steven Bauer for volunteers to commence work on the accessibility project, even though the trail group, with Weschler acting as an agent for the landowner, the WRC, had yet to appear before the Village Development Review Board (DRB) for conditional use approval that would have allowed Bauer to issue a permit for the accessibility improvements to the trail.

Here’s where it gets even murkier and more into the metaphorical weeds: Weschler did indeed appear before the VDRB on April 26 — at least two days after work had begun on the accessibility project with some clearing of the tract — to present and seek the board’s approval for the effort, which as proposed would include the construction of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant ramp at the trailhead, the removal of approximately 600 feet of tree roots, and the resurfacing of the first O.3 miles of the trail with hardpack. Weschler also said the project is to include clearing the remaining acre of the 1.3-acre property predominantly of invasive species, with a plan to work with the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park and other local organizations to replant the parcel with native bushes and trees at a later date.

VDRB members Jane Soule, Randy Mayhew, and Mary Anne Flynn voted unanimously to grant conditional use status to the WRC, triggering the possibility of a permit being issued by Bauer to allow the work to begin. Regrettably, for all concerned, the VDRB decision is not the final go-ahead: there is a 30-day appeal period during which interested parties can appeal any decision of the development review body. In addition, VDRB has up to 45 days to issue a formal, written opinion, which is required for Bauer to issue a final permit for the project.

Subsequent inquiries have revealed that work on the accessible trailhead, including the installation of the ramp and hard pack material, and the clearing of much of the vegetation on the parcel, may not be as simple as it seems, regulatorily speaking. What is clear is that innocently and with all good intentions, ORT volunteers began work on the trailhead without a permit. And people noticed, including those who might have appealed the conditional use decision, such as the Sustainable Woodstock organization. There are also those, such as Marie Caduto, the regional watershed coordinator for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in the ANR (and the spouse of Michael Caduto), who believe the ORT project may require state approval because it resides in a flood plain and may also — emphasis on may — be subject to Act 250 review and approval. It seems that no one — not the ORT representatives, nor the property owners at the Woodstock Inn & Resort, nor Woodstock Village or Town officials — had investigated the matter of potential state-level concerns.

It was Marie Caduto, who coincidentally also administers ANR’s WISPr grant program in the region, who shut down work on the trail when she inspected the site on May 8, asking an excavator with ArborScape Inc. of Pomfret to cease work immediately. That was one day before Kahn brought the matter before the Village Board of Trustees. Marie Caduto confirmed in a phone conversation Sunday evening that the ORT volunteers’ intrusion into the riparian barrier has put the WISPr funding, which had already been allocated to the Town of Woodstock, on hold until the current contretemps is resolved.

Then there’s the question of what further role other state regulators and bureaucrats may play in determining the future of – and permitting for — the ORT accessibility project. Contacted Tuesday morning, John Broker-Campbell, the regional floodplain manager for the DEC, said “Without more information, I can only provide general guidance — which is the same thing I’ve told Tom Weschler. Until otherwise shown, Steven Bauer of the Town of Woodstock is the final contact for all regulatory questions. That’s all there is to it from my perspective.”

Peter Kopsco, the coordinator of the District 3 Environmental Commission of the ANR, which has purview over Act 250 decisions, said in an email just before noon on Tuesday that, “This is the first I’ve heard of the project. I do not know if it needs an Act 250 permit. I would need some basic information about the location and project details to render a jurisdictional opinion.”

For his part, Woodstock Planning and Zoning Director Bauer said he and Municipal Manager Eric Duffy are hoping to serve as “facilitators” as things move forward, bringing all the key players together for ongoing discussions about how to rekindle the ORT accessibility project and get the ANR WISPr grant back on track. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, all these things have happened, but how do we move forward from here?’” Bauer commented. The zoning administrator also spoke about his multiple communications with Weschler about the permitting process for the project, taking gentle exception to the ORT spokesman’s assertion that he had given a verbal okay for work on the accessible trail to begin prior to the April 26 VDRB meeting and to the final granting of a permit, perhaps as much as six weeks later. “In all these meetings I’ve had with Tom Weschler, I’m pretty apologetic if I did not make it absolutely clear enough (that a final permit was required), maybe I should have made that clearer,” Bauer said.

The Woodstock planning and zoning director concluded by saying the next step was to convene a meeting late this week between the interested parties to begin finding some consensus on how to proceed with both the trail work and riparian buffer remediation. Weschler said later Monday that Duffy had invited him, Bauer, Woodstock Inn & Resort Interim President Elaine Olson, and Michael Caduto to a Town Hall confab on Thursday to begin the process of reconciliation and consensus-building.