by Page Guertin
The Berlin Select Board, at its October 20 meeting, agreed by a 4-1 vote to sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (F&W) which paves the way for F&W to build a non-motorized public access area for fishermen and boaters at the north end of Berlin Pond. The MOA states that F&W will pay to obtain all required permits, and design and construct the access on Berlin’s land. In turn, Berlin will hire a surveyor, an attorney, or both to verify its ownership of the property, and draft a lease for F&W to manage the access. F&W will reimburse the town 50 percent of the cost of surveying and deed research, up to $5,000, and Berlin will be on the hook for up to $20,000 of F&W’s expenses if Berlin decides to discontinue development of the access area.
Although board Chair Ture Nelson stated that this MOA is almost the same as one discussed this past spring, there is one subtle difference: The previous agreement, while also limiting F&W’s cost share to $5,000, offered to pay 50 percent of the price of deed research and 100 percent of the fee for additional required survey work. Therefore, the new agreement could cost the town more. Nelson said that implementation of the earlier agreement was delayed until two petitions concerning use of the pond were decided by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
According to F&W representative Mike Wichrowski, one of the dozen people attending, if the town has only a right-of-way but not ownership of the land, the access would not go forward. He said that the MOA represents the state’s good faith effort to share the expense of the survey and research, and that if the board did not sign it, the town might be liable for the entire cost.
Wichrowski said that the access, if built, will include a parking area, preferably grass and not gravel, and reconfiguring of the granite blocks situated along the edge of the water to create steps. There will be no concrete ramp or gravel brought into the pond.
Questions from resident Bob Greene ignited an inconclusive discussion around whether the agreement was just for sharing the cost of establishing or refuting land ownership, or if it committed the town to proceeding with the access if ownership is confirmed.
Asked about costs and benefits of the access to Berlin, Nelson replied simply, “In November of 2012, the voters approved developing access.”
Further requests from resident Cathy Hartshorn to clarify specific language in the MOA led Wichrowski to complain, “This has exploded into an onerous process.”
Hartshorn replied, “This is an important issue. Both sides want to get it right.”
Wichrowski advised the board to sign the MOA, insisting that it is only a placeholder, not a binding legal contract.
Berlin officials intend to approach Montpelier with a request to share funding of Berlin’s half of the survey and deed research costs. F&W also plans to discuss the access with city officials.
This decision has been on Berlin’s agenda for a while. As of June 2013, the town’s Berlin Pond committee had met several times with F&W, explored possible sites along the shore for the access, and determined that the best location was the north end of the pond in the area between Berlin Pond Road and Paine Turnpike. This is the area where both roads were relocated to their present position, and the north end of the pond filled in, by the construction of Interstate 89 in the 1960s, leading to the uncertainty about land ownership. At that time, Berlin Pond was protected by a Vermont Board of Health order. In February of this year, Berlin asked the Agency of Transportation to put the old road back on the road map, from which it had been removed when the road was relocated.