Vermont leaseholders would receive only a modestly better deal than their counterparts on NY's Champion lands
Vermont Study Affirms Short-term Protections for Champion Leaseholders but Rejects Perpetual Protection for the Camp Culture
The only real option they recommend is the continuance of "life plus 20-years"
By Carol W. LaGrasse
The hunters holding leases on the former Champion lands have been wondering about the future of their camps since the State of Vermont took title in 1999. At that time, 243 individuals owned 73 camps dispersed over the 22,000 acres now owned by the State. This January, a prestigious seven-member study committee established pursuant to Vermont statute completed its recommendations for the future of the leases in the region, West Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
But the study committee's recommendations were not responsive to the predominant theme of public meetings held throughout Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, which was that the camp culture should be permanently preserved. The representatives of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and the Champion Lands Leaseholders & Traditional Interests Association issued a dissenting report asking that the main recommendation of the study committee be rejected and that the leaseholders be given options for perpetual private ownership of the camps.
Their dissenting report referred to a study by Land & Water Associates in January 2001 describing input at nine public meetings, which stated:
"A strong theme at these and other public meetings...was the importance of these lands to what was termed as the 'fabric' of the local communities."
The dissenting report also pointed out that enabling legislation had established an official Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC), "...as a forum to hear and attempt to resolve concerns...regarding long-term use and management of [the Champion Lands]." This eleven-member committee issued initial and supplemental reports. In their May 29, 2001 Supplemental Report, the CAC stated:
"...permanent preservation of the camp culture was a predominant issue at virtually all of the CAC and Land & Water hearings." Phasing out the camps was seen as "...an attack on the culture and economy of the Champion Lands region, and as an attack on a multi-generational way of life for local residents and other long-time leaseholders who had become extensions of the Northeast Kingdom family."
But the study committee chose the opposite direction. Although the committee's report made several points to explain why they rejected perpetual leases, the end result appeared to be pre-determined by a clause in the 1999 enabling legislation for the acquisition and by the wording in the conservation easement held in turn by the Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, which stated that the state "shall not extend the term of leases for seasonal camps beyond the time specified in the 1999 Budget Adjustment Act," except for limited educational and research purposes.
The 1999 Budget Adjustment Act stated that the camp leases were to be renewed for the life of the leaseholder or, in the event of the leaseholder's death, by immediate family members for not more than 20 years. Hence, the Study Committee on West Mountain Wildlife Management Areas Leaseholds recommended to the legislature in January 2002 that leases not be extended beyond the "life-plus-20-year" term.
However, the enabling legislation for the study committee provided for a broader range of conclusions, "permitting the current leaseholders to purchase the land beneath their camps; permitting leaseholders to transfer their leasehold interest to immediate family members in perpetuity; or permitting the current leaseholders to sell their camps and transfer perpetual leasehold interests to persons other than immediate family members, granting the agency of natural resources the right of first refusal."
By comparison, for the 298 camps on the 139,000 acres of Champion lands in New York that were sold at the same time, those camps on the lands that the State acquired in fee simple, because they are in riverine areas, were given only five years within which they are allowed to renew their leases, but those where a timber investment group acquired the underlying title, with the State acquiring conservation easements on the lands, were allowed fifteen years.
While rejecting the important companion concepts of private ownership of land beneath camps or perpetual leases, the Vermont study committee threw two crumbs to the camp culture. They reached an agreement with the owner of Essex Timber that if a camp owner on Essex Timber lands wishes to relinquish a leasehold on that tract, a camp owner on West Mountain Wildlife Management Area would have the option of establishing a camp on Essex Timber land.
The other crumb tossed to the leaseholders was a deal with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to buy camps on an interim basis where land camp-owners who want to relinquish the buildings have not been able to find purchasers. Otherwise the camps have to be moved at the camp-owner's expense or be abandoned. The study committee recommended that the 2002 General Assembly fund the reimbursement of TNC by authorizing funds for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to buy the camps from the land trust.
Some had hoped that the study would recommend exchange of camps that are within the West Mountain area. But the committee wouldn't go for this. Instead they recommended that camps in "sensitive areas" be removed. Then, in a slap to the hunters who built and used the camps, the committee recommended that camps in non-sensitive areas that are in good condition be made available to the general public "as a recreational opportunity to experience these lands."
"The use of those camps would no longer be an exclusive, private right of use on public lands," recited the study committee in this written recommendation in January 2002.
But the dissent by the sportsmen and leaseholders noticed some inconsistency to the "private privilege" argument. They pointed out, "This approach to the camp issue seems hypocritical in light of the fact that the easement that ANR granted the Nature Conservancy transfers substantial control of management throughout the West Mt. WMA to a private interest group."
They observed that "the leaseholders were there first, they have contributed positively to the land and region in question, and procedures can be developed ... for new leaseholders to be given the same opportunity."
Continuing the inconsistency theme, they also noted that a purist approach was not justified, considering "the leases provided to ski resorts and the communications industry on the landscape on and around some of Vermont's most spectacular mountains."
Taking strong issue with the "purist" approach, the dissenters pointed out factors that should be balanced. They explained that, in fact, continuation of the camp culture comports with the state policy. The dissenting report pointed that the conclusion of the study committee to hold to the "life plus-20" lease term "appears to be an attempt by the ANR and the easement holders to prevent the legislature from reconsidering this issue at any time in the future."