Should Act 250 Apply to Trails?

Why the battle for Victory Hill Sector Trails matters. 

This October would have marked the 10th anniversary of what had become one of the most popular and grueling trail races in Vermont. CircumBurke started in 2009 as a 26-mile backcountry trail run and mountain bike race in the Northeast Kingdom.

It originally coursed around Burke Mountain connecting some of Kingdom Trails’ buffed trails with Burke singletrack and, on the back side of Burke, old logging roads in the Victory Hill Sector.

Open to runners and mountain bikers, it was an epically brutal route with nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. By 2018, the race was drawing close to 600 people. It was named by the readers of Vermont Sports as the Best Mountain Bike Ride/Race in Vermont.

But this October, the Victory Hill Sector trails will be quiet. No CircumBurke, no other races, no riding.

As widely reported, the Victory Hill Sector trails were shut down following a May 3 ruling by the Natural Resources Board arguing that Victory Hill Sector should have received Act 250 approval before building trails.

“I just don’t get it,” says John McGill who helped run the Victory Hill Trails on the former 1,100 acres of degraded logging land his wife, Laurie Saligman, purchased in 2007. “We spent tens of thousands of dollars to improve the land, set up the trail system as a non-profit and were barely recouping any trail fees. If this is the way the state wants to operate, we may just sell and leave.”

Should Act 25 Apply to Trails?

According to the decision handed down by NRB’s regional coordinator, Kirsten Sultan, what triggered Vic- tory Hill’s need for an Act 250 review, the state’s land development act, were three main things: the trails were col- lecting fees, therefore commercial; when the trails were developed, they were not part of the Vermont Trail System or Kingdom Trails—non-prof- its that had preapproved trail build- ing guidelines; and development im- pacted more than 10 acres of land.

While the Victory Hill decision may seem like an isolated incident, it fueled something of a firestorm in the trailbuilding community.

“All together, members of the Trails and Greenways Alliance have put close to $50,000 that could have gone into trail building into legal work to help understand and lobby for revisions to Act 250,” says Vermont Mountain Bike

Association executive director Tom Stuessy. “It’s really confusing for landowners and 70 percent of our trails are on private land and maintained with over 100,000 annual volunteer hours.”

While private landowners who have small sections of trail crossing their land may not be impacted by Act 250, larger landowners are feeling the pain.

“There’s a big difference between building a trail system for outdoor recreation and putting in a Walmart,” says Nick Mahood, who has helped to oversee Suicide Six’s new S6 bike park on the ski resort’s land. “Yet we’ve had to spend a lot of time and money go- ing through the same Act 250 process.”

Nearby, Woodstock Area Mountain Bike Trails saw its Aqueduct Trails come under Act 250 review because the trails used land also occupied by a water storage tank that had a 1986 Act 250 review. WAMBA president Seth Westcott wrote on the WAMBA site. “Our recent and ongoing efforts to comply with the requirements of Act 250 have diverted our chapter’s volunteer hours away from trail improvements, signage, maps, and community events. We are spending membership dollars on permitting and specialists that could instead be spent on making our trail system better, and more environmentally friendly.”

Finding an Alternative?

This summer, Gov. Scott posted on the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economy Council website: “My Administration has proposed streamlining the Act 250 permitting process for recreational trails—including creating a mechanism that would allow recreational trails to be released from Act 250 jurisdiction.”

Act 250 is still under review by the Act 250 Commission and there is still time for comment. In 2018, the Act 194 Recreational Trails Working Group (made up of members of the states’ Forest Parks & Recreation Depart- ment, Natural Resources Board and Agency of Natural Resources) submit- ted a report with results from a survey of trail organizations around the state.

The members of the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council—which is formed by trail groups such as VMBA, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), The Green Mountain Club, and others—have also posted links on their sites to another survey on Act 250. (visit: https://www. surveymonkey.com/r/9CSPHY7).

The organization is also working on a unified response to Act 250 and recommendations for how to permit trails going forward.

“What people need to understand is the full value trails bring. They preserve open space, they help keep people healthy and they are huge economic drivers. We have more than 100,000 people come to Vermont to mountain bike here each year, and thousands of volunteers building trails on private land – those are things we need to encourage, not discourage,” says Stuessy.

With two public summits coming up (on Sept. 5, from 6 to 8 pm at the Franklin Conference Center in Rutland and on Sept. 12 at the Burlington Elk’s Lodge, from 6 to 8 pm) there are opportunities to comment.

As for CircumBurke? As Kingdom Trails and Victory Hill Sector’s noted in a joint statement: “The organizers look forward to hosting the 10th Anniversary CircumBurke together in 2020 in its original form, a celebration of epic single track and trail users, driving economic prosperity during a not so thriving time of year in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

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