The Destruction of Saxon Hill Forest
November 1, 2021
“Think globally. Act locally.” the bumper sticker goes. If you want to save the world, start with your own little corner.
Considering what has happened to the Saxon Hill Forest, we’ve failed miserably to act locally. Now, what was once called “the last frontier” in Chittenden County has been conquered, less a forest park, more an industrial park. Singer Joni Mitchell’s words could be its anthem: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
It did not have to be this way, and therein lies the saga of Saxon Hill: a sad tale of petulance, arrogance, deception and greed that has characterized our intermunicipal relations for decades.
According to a UVM study, the Saxon Hill area was more or less settled by the 1800’s. In 1900, the Village began purchasing the Saxon Hill land, and the first reservoir was constructed, followed by three more.
By the early 1970s, Village Trustees began to chafe at the property taxes the Village paid the Town for the property. Local officials squabbled over the Town’s tax assessment. The Trustees looked to sell the land. Town and Village voters approved a referendum to keep it in public hands, a sentiment the Trustees ignored. By 1978, most of the land was sold to developers.
The Town’s Planning Commission of that era tried to balance environmental protection with economic development, setting up a special zoning district that would preserve most of the former watershed. Over time, developers have nibbled away at the edges, resulting in the degraded forest remnant of today.
The full story of Saxon Hill is too long to tell in a short column. The following supplemental documents provide background: Saxon Hill Forest History, Case Study in Degradation, and Backroom Dealing.
This, though, is what I have learned: Saxon Hill is a cautionary tale about destroying forests at a time when it is critical to preserve such natural ecosystems.
Venturing into the forest’s history, I thought I could find respite, however briefly, from the perpetual power struggle between the Town and the Village. I could not.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the Village, whose leaders once set in motion the destruction of Saxon Hill Forest, now prides itself in being a Tree City. (Tree City USA, per its website, is a national program that recognizes communities of all sizes who actively manage and steward their public tree resources.)
Village leaders not only paved paradise and put up a parking lot, but also recently spent $60,000 on a contaminated parking lot, which they have labeled a “Pocket Park”, in front of Firebird Cafe at Five Corners. Now they brainstorm ways to green up this slab of asphalt. Irony of ironies.
Bruce S. Post, a former Selectboard member, often writes and lectures on Vermont environmental history.