Essex’s planning department is seeking input on a management plan for the Saxon Hill Forest to help guide the town’s stewardship of the area’s recreational offerings.
The Saxon Hill Forest is comprised of more than 330 acres of publicly owned land, including 245 acres the town recently obtained as part of its sand extraction settlement in 2015. And while both zoning regulations and a court decree require the land be used as “passive recreation,” it doesn’t specify what that should look like.
That’s why the town is now undertaking a public outreach campaign, according to community development director Dana Hanley.
“We’re just going to try and find out what the community wants to have happen in there,” she said.
The town has retained consultants SE Group to kick off its outreach with a forest walk event on July 8 at 5:30 p.m. It will then host two more public meetings: a July 16 visioning workshop, at which community members can provide initial ideas for the site, and a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting where officials will share findings from a community survey and the first workshop.
The community development department will then use the feedback to write a final document spelling out the preferred management tactics for the forest’s resources and recreational activities. The selectboard will need to approve the plan.
Whether the management plan will cover the entirety of publicly owned land is yet to be determined; Schibler said officials still need to decide whether the school-owned parcel will be included in the plan.
The work comes four years after the town settled a contentious lawsuit focused on land within the Saxon Hill Forest. The legal dispute dated back to an Essex Planning Commission’s denial of a 2011 application to create a sand extraction operation across more than 50 acres within the forest. The landowner, Allen Brook Development, Inc., appealed the decision to environmental court, and the case was set to go to trial in the spring of 2015.
But the town reached an agreement with the landowner weeks before the trial that allowed the sand extraction to impact a 27.5-acre area in exchange for the 245 acres.
The management plan will now bring some structure to Saxon Hill’s recreational area, which has a long history of rogue trail-cutting, unmarked property lines, ineffective signage and illegal parking.
The town has already taken some measures to manage the area. In 2016, it joined forces with the then-Essex Jct. School District and the Fellowship of the Wheel – a Williston-based nonprofit that has become the de-facto stewards of the Saxon Hill land, building a network of mountain biking and hiking over the last two decades – to get a better grasp of the area, earning
approval to put up signage and informational kiosks.
But Rosy Metcalfe, programs director for the Fellowship of the Wheel, said she believes the organization can be even more of a resource moving forward. Metcalfe, the Fellowship’s representative on the town’s steering committee, and said the organization is excited about the prospect of a formalized plan for the area.
“We just think it’s a wonderful thing that the town of Essex is investing in having the work done,” she said.