CHAPTER 4: Setting Priorities and Achieving Goals

Table of Contents

This chapter discusses mission statements, planning, the natural cycles of commissions, and partnerships with other organizations. It is designed to help commissions focus their energy and minimize the problems caused by being bogged down.

4-1 Mission Statement

Some conservation commissions are very clear on their goals and mission, whereas others have difficulty developing a focus for their efforts. A conservation commission should know why the organization exists and be able to write a clear statement of purpose. In fact, one of the first tasks of a commission is to write a mission statement.

As discussed in Chapter 2 Starting and Building a Conservation Commission, the State enabling legislation for conservation commissions does not contain a purpose statement as do many other pieces of legislation. Consequently, some conservation commissions have struggled with their role and purpose, which leads to conflict among members and ineffectiveness of the commission. Writing a mission statement will help commissions get started and keep them directed.

Generally, a mission statement should be a short, inspiring message that is easily communicated. It answers the question “Why do we exist?” It also serves as a recruitment and public relations tool. In addition, the mission statement for conservation commissions must be in accordance with the enabling legislation. The reason for the establishment of a particular commission also may influence the wording of its mission statement

Morristown Conservation Commission Mission:
To preserve the natural beauty and rural character of Morristown and to protect and enhance its natural environment through land acquisition and easements, advocacy and education.

Guilford Conservation Commission Mission:
To serve the Guilford community to identify, inventory, foster education about, and help protect Guilford’s natural, scenic, recreational, historic, educational, cultural, architectural, agricultural, and archaeological resources for the public good. The commission shall help residents and town officials recognize the value of these resources and administer them for the benefit of future generations.

Charlotte Conservation Commission Mission:
Our mission is to support the Charlotte Town Plan by promoting land and other resource use decisions which protect and enhance Charlotte’s natural and cultural resources through:
• Promotion of public understanding and appreciation of nature.
• Creation of education and planning tools for resource management.
• Participation in town planning and policy development processes.
• Engagement in the civic life of the town.

4-2 Short-Term Planning during the First Few Years

After writing a mission statement, the next task a conservation commission faces is how to turn the mission statement into concrete, measurable goals and objectives. This includes establishing priorities and writing a work plan.

In general, a conservation commission’s goal is to promote stewardship of the natural and cultural resources in the community. However, because this mandate is so broad and because there are likely more conservation issues in any community than there will be time and energy to address them, conservation commissions need to establish priorities. Taking the time to plan thoughtfully will lead to more success and less frustration.

Short-term planning often involves deciding on several projects and writing a work plan for the course of a year or so. This type of ad hoc or incremental planning leads to getting involved with activities somewhat randomly, as opportunities arise. This strategy may keep a commission busy but does not direct energy toward specific goals, and the impact of the commission will be scattered or small. An example of incremental planning by a conservation commission would be the following:

  • This month, hold a river cleanup;
  • Next month, host a public lecture on preserving agricultural land;
  • In September, sell chrysanthemums at the fall festival to raise funds for an Arbor Day activity.

An annual work plan is very useful. Answering the question “What activities should we undertake during the next year?” It can be a fun and stimulating exercise for a commission. Two effective tools for generating ideas are brainstorming and the nominal group process. Both processes benefit from a skilled leader who acts as a facilitator. The facilitator helps the group move through the process and frees all commissioners to participate.

Missisquoi River Basin Association Tree Planting Program: The Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA), got its start in 1994 with the determination and dedication to restore the Missisquoi River watershed. The MRBA is a group comprised of teachers, farmers, business owners, environmental experts and concerned citizens. Since the formation, the non-profit has planted more than 22,000 trees to create streambank buffers and provide habitat alongside the Missisquoi River. Read More

Brainstorming is one of the most widely used strategies for drawing out creativity. The facilitator writes down the topic or question on a flip chart or a chalk board. Group members call out their ideas in short phrases that are written down by one or more recorders. No judgments or discussions are allowed during this stage; offbeat or unusual ideas are encouraged to stimulate fresh thinking. The point is to come up with many initial ideas, out of which a few of the best can be selected.

Next, making the choices to narrow the scope can be done in a variety of ways. Everyone can vote for the three ideas they like the best. Another approach is for everyone to rate the ideas from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest priority and 1 being the lowest. The ideas with the highest combined score will be discussed further. After narrowing the list to a few topics, group members need to clarify and examine each of them.

The nominal group process is an effective strategy for assuring input from all group members. Each group member silently writes down their ideas on a given topic or question in a few words. The facilitator then asks each person to present, but not discuss, their first idea. Then, each person gives the second idea and so on until all ideas are written down by the recorder on a flip chart or chalk board.

The facilitator then reviews each idea, asks for questions or clarifications, and numbers the ideas. Each person silently chooses priority items. The facilitator goes down the list and records the number of people who consider each item a priority. This step can serve as a winnowing process, eliminating some ideas. Finally, each member rates each item from 0 (no importance) to 10 (top priority). A cumulative rating is calculated for each item. An alternative approach to the last two steps is to give each group member a certain number of dots (colored paper with adhesive backs) to vote for their top priorities. Often, three to six dots are given to each member, who can put all the dots on one item or spread them around. The item with the most dots is the highest priority.

The advantage of the nominal group process over brainstorming is that the former assures all participants an equal opportunity to express opinions and ideas in a nonthreatening setting. Both strategies can help conservation commissions generate a set of priorities for the coming year.

A variation on the brainstorming approach is to start the list of ideas at one meeting and then continue it at the next meeting. In between meetings, members can talk with family members, neighbors, selectboard and planning commission members, civic organizations, school officials, and townspeople in general to gather ideas about what the conservation commission should be doing. This expanded process not only results in a longer list but can also generate support for the commission.

When choosing priorities, a newly formed conservation commission should consider several factors. First, pick some projects that can be accomplished fairly quickly with the energy and expertise available. This will help the commission establish a track record, build confidence, and build a base of support for conservation work in town. Projects such as trails and cleanup efforts can achieve recognition and citizen involvement. Noncontroversial projects such as education projects—helping a class of local students monitor the presence of amphibians and reptiles in a wetland—can build community support and reduce possible concerns that town residents may have about the role of a conservation commission.

Second, a conservation commission should focus its work on the most pressing conservation issues. Therefore, a new commission can assess these interests directly by community surveys, which can be a joint project with the town planning commission.  An established commission should conduct community surveys periodically. Such a survey should identify the most important conservation issues in town. For more on surveys, community values mapping and more, see Chapter 5 Communication and Engagement.

Third, to deal successfully with conservation of a town’s resources, a community first needs to know what it has! Thus, an inventory is often the first place to start for a new conservation commission. Priorities and a work plan will flow from an inventory. For more on inventory, see Chapter 6 Commissions Work in a Larger Context.

Depending on the reason for its creation, a new commission may have a clear mandate for its course of action. Other commissions may perceive an urgent need to get involved quickly on a particular project. Most new commissions avoid controversial projects for the first few years. Each community has its unique people, resources, and priorities that translate into different projects and work plans.

After selecting priorities for the next one- to two-year period, the commission should develop a clear work plan that specifies what activities will be undertaken, who is responsible, what will be accomplished, and how the activities relate to one another and to the target audience. A good work plan leaves time and energy for dealing with new urgent matters that may come up.

4-3 Long-Range Strategic Planning

After conservation commission has been up and running for a few years, it may want to do more sophisticated strategic planning. This type of long­ term planning is a process of determining both what impact or influence the organization wishes to have in the future and how it will achieve that. Typically, the scope of strategic planning varies from three to five years, although it can focus on a more manageable one to three years.

In contrast to incremental planning discussed above, strategic planning involves deciding on a goal and taking progressive steps that build on each other to reach the goal. A simplified example of strategic planning by a conservation commission would be the following:

  • With a goal of preserving working farms in town, a commission first encourages the townspeople to set up and fund a local conservation fund.
  • For a few years, the commission encourages the townspeople to contribute annually to the fund through a tax appropriation.
  • Next, the commission holds a series of public meetings on the benefits and techniques of land conservation and specifically invites farmers in town.
  • Then the commission hires a staff member of a land trust to meet one on one with willing farmers who are considering a conservation project.
  • Finally, the commission and a land trust put together a land conservation deal and encourage the selectboard to appropriate money from the conservation fund to leverage other grant money to buy a conservation easement on a particular farm in town.

Strategic planning answers four questions.

  • 1. What is our goal?
  • 2. Where are we now in relation to our goal?
  • 3. Where do we want to be?
  • 4. How do we get there?

A strategic plan provides a framework for decision-making, budgeting, fundraising, and recruiting volunteers. An effective plan is feasible, measurable, flexible, inspiring, and in writing. It includes a mission statement, goals, objectives, and a timeline. Without a strategic plan, an organization continually reacts to situations or squanders its resources trying to do everything and often ends up feeling burned out.

There is not one way to do strategic planning; each conservation commission can use a process that fits its needs. The process itself requires energy, creativity, and time, but it is extremely valuable. A key element in how smoothly and quickly the planning process goes is how it is led. Commissions should consider asking an experienced person for help to facilitate their strategic planning sessions. Sometimes, a commission may try but be unable to agree on a long-term strategic plan. Rather than consider this a failure, the commission can use at least some of the ideas generated by these discussions to improve short-term plans.

Some conservation commissions have charismatic leaders who intuitively seem to know the way to proceed. These commissions often can operate without a formal strategic plan—if the gifted leader stays in the lead! However, in these situations, it can be hard for less confident commissioners to participate fully and for new leadership to develop within the commission. It can also lead to a lack of participation by some members since “clearly (the leader) has it covered.” In these cases, it is important not to let the commission become the work of only one inspired person. Be sure that work is delegated to everyone in appropriate ways and that the commission has ways of gently holding each other accountable for the work that they take on.

For lack of leadership or a mission statement or for other reasons, some conservation commissions muddle along without organized planning. This reactive approach means responding to situations as they arise and not taking much initiative. It can be a temporary survival strategy when the organization’s time and energy resources are very low. But in the long run, it is frustrating for volunteers and can harm an organization. Some level of participatory group planning and targeted activities is important.

When thoughtful planning is done on a regular basis, it provides direction and periodic accomplishments; that is, the group decides where and how they want to go and they have the satisfaction of knowing when they get there! These elements are especially important to a volunteer board such as a conservation commission. Commissioners will be most willing to engage in planning sessions if the process is kept simple and relatively brief. The effort invested in planning will pay off in terms of more efficient use of time and money and a more effective use of enthusiasm and expertise on the commission and in the community.

4-4 Ebbing and Flowing of Conservation Commissions

Conservation commissions, being volunteer organizations, tend to ebb and flow in cycles of energy. Most conservation commissions will experience low energy and membership at some point. This is understandable but discouraging. Commissioners will want to take actions to promote strong organizational and leadership development and to avoid or minimize the impact of low times.

Volunteer Recruitment for Invasive Species Control: The Charlotte Conservation Commission in partnership with Lewis Creek Association have conducted an ambitious volunteer based invasive plant control project. The project site is the Thorp/Kimball 50 acre wetland complex, adjacent to Town Farm Bay of Lake Champlain. European frogbit, a floating aquatic plant was first discovered in the wetland in 2007. At the time, it was estimated to have covered 50% of the open water. Read More

One typical situation is when a long-standing leader, for example, the founding member, leaves. If no preparations have been made for the transition to a new leader, the commission may experience a painful void that seems almost impossible to fill. The best preparation is to work regularly in teams and keep good records so that when an unexpected or planned change of membership occurs, others can pick up the responsibilities of the departing member more easily. Leadership development within the commission should be promoted constantly by the chairperson and others. A successful strategy used by one conservation commission was for the founding member to stay on the commission as a member for at least six months after she stepped down as chairperson.

Lack of a focus or goals is another problem frequently encountered by conservation commissions that can result in low enthusiasm and participation and a sense that the group is just drifting. A mission statement, rules, an annual workplan, and a strategic plan will go a long way to stimulate and focus energy. Even if the work plan must be modest due to limited human and financial resources, it can still be made meaningful and satisfying to those involved.

Successful conservation commissions carefully balance their projects and workload. Commissions can burn out from juggling too many projects at one time. On the other hand, there must be enough interesting projects going on to keep members involved. Similarly, a commission needs to complete projects to feel successful. A combination of short- and long-term projects is desirable so that there is periodic accomplishment and completion. Big, long-term projects can be divided into manageable pieces. Having an experienced outside person help with the strategic planning process can provide a voice of reason when the commission is tempted to over commit itself.

In many different situations, an ebbing conservation commission can benefit from successfully conducting an easy, short-term project. Some easy projects can generate a great deal of success and public recognition! Including the excitement of children in a project can also help inspire others.

Having fun is a very important ingredient of successful commissions and keeps members wanting to serve. An example of a fun activity is monthly field trips to explore different areas in town, whether hiking in summer or snowshoeing and skiing in winter. Commissions can host seasonal community celebrations on the land, such as a winter solstice party with storytelling, singing, and sharing of food. Include humor, when possible.

Sullivan Education Woods Monthly Walks: After the Sullivan family donated the 14-acre forest to the town of Middletown Springs, the town’s conservation commission were appointed stewards of the property and created a loop trail and signage. One of the largest projects pursued by the group was a series of walks that took place each month for about six years. Open to all, this family-friendly series offered citizens the opportunity to engage in monthly-guided walks of the forest. Additionally, the series included activities like storytelling, seasonal events, and an annual camp-out. Read More

Including some hands-on, outdoor projects can keep commissions energized. Projects such as stream bank restoration, trail maintenance, or pruning and releasing wild apple trees for wildlife refresh members’ spirits and are fun. As Middlebury College professor John Elder said, “We need to connect with our local landscapes to gather strength.”

Effective commissions make the most of the talents and interests of their members when choosing projects. This increases motivation and success. Moreover, an effective commission recognizes and accepts that the time and energy each member can give varies.

Commissions that include a mix of long-time members and new members tend to flow better because of continuity with the past plus some fresh, new ideas and perspectives. In addition, larger commissions have the advantage of being able to spread the workload out over more people, so individuals are less likely to feel overwhelmed. Commissions function well when there is a mix of “organizers” and “doers.”

Low membership can dampen commission enthusiasm. Easy, short-term projects show potential members that the time commitment does not have to be a large one to accomplish worthwhile goals. One commission held a highly visible event in town, and afterwards, several new members joined. Volunteers will join if they believe they will have fun and accomplish something! Encourage new members to take on a manageable task immediately. Also, see suggestions on finding new volunteers in Chapter 2 Starting and Building A Conservation Commission.

Low enthusiasm and poor attendance at commission meetings reinforce each other. To perk things up, the chair can try talking with members individually to draw out their personal concerns and motivations or organizing a short retreat with an inspirational speaker. Attendance at meetings can be encouraged by making sure they run efficiently, having an occasional guest speaker, and regularly offering refreshments. On a regular basis, a fun outdoor activity can help counterbalance some of the unavoidable strain and discouragement that commissioners experience.

Commissions are energized by working collaboratively within and outside of the town. Joint projects with the planning commission, the recreation committee, or the local historical society are rewarding and beneficial now and, in the future, (see the following sections).

Not only can less-active commissions meet with neighboring conservation commissions and “recharge” their energy that way, but active commissions also can enjoy the stimulation of reaching out to new commissions nearby and offering help or planning joint activities. Regional meetings of conservation commissions are great places to increase motivation and hear new ideas.

Sue Morse presents “Animals of the North: What Will Global Climate Change Mean for Them?”: The Bolton Conservation Commission (BCC), the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions and the High Meadows Fund presented: ‘Animals of the North: What will Global Climate Change Mean for Them?’ by Susan Morse, forester, wildlife ecologist and founder of Keeping Track, at Smilie Memorial School on October 4, 2017. Sue’s powerpoint presentation about northern animals and the effect that our warming climate is having upon them was illustrated with her stunning, award-winning photography and followed by a question and answer session. The event was free and open to the public and attended by 20 people from 5 different towns, ages 8-80, including students, professionals, retirees, town government, animal lovers and outdoors people. Read More

Successful commissions seek outside expertise and help when needed. They gather information carefully from a variety of sources before making important decisions. They talk with successful fund-raisers about how to find grants and other support for projects. Contact AVCC for assistance or a fresh perspective on how to move forward.

Conservation commissions can ebb and flow depending on what is going on in their towns. It follows that most conservation commissions have their strongest activity while the climate is most supportive. The opposite is also true. For example, if the town will be voting on a large school bond, it might not be a good time for the conservation commission to ask for money to buy land for a new town park.

Controversies or issues that seem ripe for public support often motivate people to get involved and the commission to act as opportunists. However, a conservation commission should discuss the various aspects of controversial issues before choosing its role. What do they want to achieve and how can they be successful? Sometimes a commission will decide to approach an issue from the side rather than head-on, such as by collecting and distributing objective information for townspeople and decision-makers. For example, the Woodbury Conservation Commission chose to stay out of the motorboat controversy in town. Instead, members put their efforts into studying the twenty-three lakes and ponds, setting up a lake lay monitoring program, and writing a report.

Success breeds success. A commission can minimize failures by planning carefully and carrying out its projects conscientiously and professionally.

Many conservation commissions are discouraged by the slow rate of progress on the things they want to see changed. But they must recognize that it takes time to affect changes that are important and that they must keep moving forward steadily with their conservation work.

Under a sense of urgency to “do something” about conservation issues in town, conservation commissions often overlook or do not leave time to take care of themselves as an organization. It is extremely important for volunteers on any board to feel respected, valued, and satisfied that their participation is making a difference to something they care about.

Conservation commissions are no different. The officers often provide key leadership, but it is the responsibility of all commissioners to monitor and promote the health of the organization.

The following list suggests additional ways to keep conservation commissions motivated, energized, and successful. Many of these topics are discussed in other sections of this handbook:

  • Require each member to be responsible for at least one project;
  • Acknowledge the efforts of individual members;
  • Write a job description for members;
  • Recruit and encourage effective leaders;
  • Participate in training sessions for commissioners and town officials;
  • Rotate members who serve as officers;
  • Have chairperson and vice-chairperson share leadership;
  • Make meetings a productive and efficient use of time;
  • Set reasonable deadlines and keep to them;
  • Encourage members to subscribe to the AVCC email listserv;
  • Recruit new members on a regular basis so that vacancies can be filled without delay;
  • Seek and foster the support of other town boards;
  • Work at developing credibility, trust, and community support;
  • Promote partnerships with other town boards and community organizations;
  • Use volunteers wisely;
  • Maintain an effective outreach and education program;
  • Maintain a user-friendly library of resources;
  • Review projects periodically to assess strengths and weaknesses, to acknowledge success, and to adjust as needed;
  • Remember that process is as important as outcome;
  • Talk about burn out and ebbing cycles and discuss solutions;
  • Learn from mistakes;
  • Be flexible.

Sometimes, a conservation commission does not feel that it is successful. But when it makes a list of accomplishments, the commission may realize it is more successful than it gives itself credit for. Just having a conservation commission is a success, with many spin-off effects.

4-5 Conservation Commissions as Part of Town Government

Vermont’s tradition of strong local government results from an interplay of history and geography common to New England. Early European settlers to the region congregated in isolated small communities, separated by a rugged landscape. This isolation along with strong participatory democracy led to a decentralized form of government, including the tradition of annual town meetings.

This tradition of strong local government led to the formation of the first conservation commission in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1956, to save a local wetland from development.  The idea spread to all of the New England states, and, as a result, conservation commissions have been called a distinctly Yankee phenomenon. New York and New Jersey also have picked up the concept.

A municipal conservation commission is the only local board specifically charged with protecting the natural resources of the town. Without a conservation commission, the planning for these resources must be done by other boards, which have other responsibilities and priorities. Thus, a conservation commission is a crucial part of town government.

Some conservation commissions are perceived, and in fact perceive themselves, as “second-class” town officials, partly because they are “only advisory” to the longer-standing selectboard and planning commission.

Other boards may treat conservation commissions as somehow less “official” than they are. This attitude can be overcome by the conservation commissioners acting like the legitimate town officials that they are. A little effort put into positive public relations will help the commission clarity its role. See Chapter 5

4-6 Relationships with Other Municipal Officials

Because conservation commissions are primarily advisory bodies, they must have good working relationships with other municipal officers to be successful. By providing accurate and reliable information, the commission will gain credibility. By offering assistance and alternative solutions, the commission will gain influence.

Gaining the respect of local officials and citizens and building strong working relationships can take time and patience. Eventually, the conservation commission will establish a reputation as being a credible and reliable source of information. Other town officials will realize that conservation commissions can assist them in carrying out their jobs.

Support from the selectboard and the planning commission can be critical at budget time because conservation commission budgets are often part of the budgets of these two groups (see 7-1 Creating A Budget). Another reason for good working relationships among all town officials is to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort.

There are several goals for a conservation commission in regards to relationships with town officials and the public in general:

  • To establish credibility and trust;
  • To be a reliable and unbiased source of information;
  • To demonstrate the ability to work cooperatively as a partner;
  • To be seen as a positive entity;
  • To offer people-power and enthusiasm as cosponsors of events or partners in projects;
  • To be seen as a safe place to come and raise issues;
  • To help sustain the valuable webs of relationships in a community;
  • To be recognized as the town’s commission, not as a separate group.

Most conservation commissions in Vermont do work collaboratively in their towns, especially with the planning commission, selectboard, and local school officials. Many of these relationships are successful and supportive. For example, a Ferrisburgh conservation commissioner reported, “We have a good working relationship with other [town] groups. You know that when you are asked for your technical advice by others.”

A few commissions have experiences marked by miscommunication, confrontation, and disrespect. In one town, the planning commission asked the conservation commission to conduct a certain project. But after months of hard work, the planning commission rejected the work. To avoid this problem, a conservation commission can check in with the other town board shortly after starting the project, for example, when it is 10% done. Then, periodically continue to get approval for the work and do not wait until the project is completed to present the work.

Communication is often the key to successful town board relationships. Let town officials know before, during, and after a project what the conservation commission is pursuing. Additionally, a commission can discuss the risks of tackling controversial issues with other boards ahead of time.

If there are problems working with one town board, the commission may gain success by accessing the decision-makers another way. For example, one conservation commission had trouble working with the selectboard but was able to work well with the town manager instead. If there is one person on a board who is not supportive of conservation commission activities, try to find out why and, if possible, respond to their concerns. And, in the meantime, seek other allies on the board.

A conservation commission should avoid the language or sentiment of “Us vs. Them” in its relationship with other town boards or factions within the town. Its really not helpful to talk that way within commission meetings since it only furthers any perceived divides. The more a commission can do to speak about other boards and citizens and their actions with respect, the more it will be respected. Remember the difficult balancing act the planning commission and selectboard have to engage in. By comparison, the work of a conservation commission is more straightforward in having a more singular mission. Be gentle with each other and recognize the tremendous dedication of volunteers around town, some of whom might disagree with the commission’s work. Instead of “us vs them”, its really only “Us”, the town, and the town needs to figure out how to get along. For better and worse, we’re stuck with each other and need to find ways to productively engage in the town’s business.

Managing conflict is an important aspect of a conservation commission’s work. Conflict is unavoidable and isn’t something bad or to be feared and doesn’t necessarily mean anyone did anything wrong. It is a natural byproduct of people living in community with different visions for what they want their present and future to look like. A conservation commission can help train and empower its members to handle conflict in an appropriate way. This involves skills in managing inter-personal conflict as well as conflict between boards or with various factions within the town. Understanding the bigger picture of who is doing what (See Chapter 6 Conservation Commissions Work in a Larger Context) can be helpful in minimizing some conflict between boards as commissioners learn more about each other’s roles. (See 4-7 Working Collaboratively with Other Organizations)

One role that a conservation commission can serve is education of its citizens outside of the schools. This is an area in which conservation commissions can take the lead and build strong alliances with other groups supportive of this educational role.

Not always, but in some instances, the conservation commission must seek approval for its projects from other town boards, especially the selectboard. Whether approval is needed or not, it is always wise to keep other boards informed of commission projects from the beginning. To encourage approval, the commission should be well prepared and have “all its ducks lined up.” One commission had to go back to the drawing board because it could not answer all the questions of the selectboard, including how much the project would cost.

To have successful relationships with town officers, conservation commissions must be aware of the political and organizational framework in which they operate. Every commissioner should be familiar with how municipal government works, the roles of each entity, and the regulations and Town Plan currently in force.

The following are short descriptions of some of the major players in town government, along with suggested actions for conservation commissions to build bridges to these players. Consult the Vermont Statutes and publications by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Office of the Secretary of State for more detailed descriptions of town officials.

Selectboard / City Council

The selectboard is the three- or five-member legislative body of the town. Its members are elected at town meeting and are responsible for the basic administration of the town. Their major role is to manage the town budget and the infrastructure, such as roads, water, and sewer. They also make appointments to other boards and commissions, such as the planning and conservation commissions and the zoning board.

Conservation commissions work closely with selectboards. Sometimes the selectboard asks the conservation commission to write a report or management plan, research a position, or monitor an activity in town with environmental impacts.

The following are suggested actions to foster good relationships between the conservation commission and the selectboard:

  • Make agendas and minutes of conservation commission meetings available to the selectboard and email them directly;
  • Designate one commission member as the liaison who attends selectboard meetings;
  • Alternatively, rotate who serves as the liaison;
  • Have the selectboard designate one member who will serve as the liaison with the conservation commission and attend commission meetings;
  • Request that the agendas and minutes of the selectboard meetings be emailed to the conservation commission;
  • seek support for conservation commission projects early on;
  • Ask the selectboard for suggested future projects for the commission;
  • If the selectboard asks the commission to conduct a project, be sure all the details are clear and agreed upon.

Planning Commission

The planning commission’s overall role is to lead the community on planning matters. The three to nine members are either appointed by the selectboard or elected by the townspeople. The planning commission writes zoning bylaws and the town plan, which by state law must be revised every eight years. If a town has zoning bylaws that include a site plan review provision and subdivision bylaws, the planning commission is responsible for the review of proposed developments and may conduct site inspections, unless there is a Development Review Board, which would take on that responsibility.

Conservation commissions work closely with planning commissions in several important areas, including updating the town plan, reviewing development proposals, drafting new zoning bylaws, and preparing open space plans. (See Chapter 6 for more on municipal projects) Many planning commissions ask conservation commissions to work jointly or independently on specific projects such as making maps, conducting inventories, writing grants, conducting community surveys, holding public meetings, or forming study groups around an issue.

The following are suggested actions to foster good relationships between the conservation commission and the planning commission:

  • A conservation commission member also may serve on the planning commission;
  • Send the planning commission agendas and minutes of conservation commission meetings;
  • Designate one conservation commission member as the liaison who attends planning commission meetings;
  • Alternatively, rotate who serves as the liaison;   
  • Have the planning commission designate one member who will serve as the liaison with the conservation commission and attend conservation commission meetings;
  • Request that the agendas and minutes of the planning commission meetings be mailed to the conservation commission;
  • Seek support for conservation commission projects early on;
  • Ask the planning commission for suggested future projects for the conservation commission;
  • If the planning commission asks the commission to conduct a project, be sure all the details are clear and agreed upon.

Zoning Administrator and Zoning Board Of Adjustment

The zoning administrator issues zoning or building permits and makes initial decisions on zoning matters (Administrative Review). The administrator is appointed by the planning commission with the approval of the selectboard. The zoning board hears appeals of permit denials from, the zoning administrator and grants variances and conditional use permits. The zoning board is appointed by the selectboard.

Generally, the conservation commission has limited interaction with these town officials but may want to meet with them periodically to reinforce the importance of supporting conservation issues in town.

Development Review Board

In municipalities that create a development review board, this board takes over the regulatory functions of the planning commission as well as the responsibilities of the zoning board, which ceases to exist. This frees the planning commission from the burden of conducting site plan and subdivision reviews and allows them to concentrate completely on planning. To date, about 50% of Vermont towns have established a development review board. The selectboard creates a development review board simply by voting to create one. The board consists of three to nine members, appointed by the selectboard.

Town Clerk And Treasurer

The town clerk is elected to keep the records of birth, marriage, and death and the land records and to run elections. The treasurer is elected to keep the financial records of the town and to collect current property taxes. Often both positions are held by the same person. A town clerk can be the glue that holds a town together, and they often are a pivotal point for communication among townspeople and town officials. Conservation commissions can benefit from having a good working relationship with the town clerk.

Ash Tree Awareness Week 2014: In 2014, the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry held Ash Tree Awareness Week to provide education and outreach to the public about the Emerald Ash Borer. During the designated week, events were held throughout the state of Vermont to raise awareness of the damaging effects of the Emerald Ash Borer. Events included tree walks in every county that were open to the public, hanging posters on 1500 Ash trees with information about EAB, and teaching citizens of Vermont how to identify EAB. In addition to the events held, there was also media involvement through TV shows, newspaper articles, and an active twitter account associated with Ash Tree Awareness Week. Read More

Town Tree Warden

Every town in Vermont is required to appoint a town tree warden, who is responsible for the planning, planting, and maintenance of trees within the public domain. The interests of conservation commissions and town tree wardens overlap, and these two groups should work closely together.

Road Commissioner / Town Road Crew

The road commissioner is either elected by the voters or appointed by the selectboard. This individual is charged by the selectboard to maintain the town’s highways and to keep the bridges, culverts, and roads in good repair. A conservation commission may work with the road commissioner on a variety of issues. This might include: Aquatic Organism Passage; invasives species management along town roads, wildlife road crossings, erosion control, curb cuts, & maintenance practices that impact water quality and roadside vegetation. Emerald Ash Borer is another growing problem that merits close collaboration with the road crew as dead ash trees along the roadside are dangerous to motorists.

Cemetery Commission

The cemetery commission is elected to supervise the care and use of public cemeteries. Each town has its own rules for cemetery use. A conservation commission may work with the cemetery commission in regard to conservation of cultural resources present in the cemeteries, open space for public use, and trees in the public domain.

Town Manger and Town Planner

Larger municipalities in Vermont have paid staff, such as a town manager or a town planner. The town manager (or town administrator) works for the selectboard as the chief administrator of the town. The town planner works for the planning commission and the Zoning board. These town officials can be valuable allies and resources for conservation commissions.

School Board

Three or five members of the school board serve as a legislative body for the school district. They write the school budget, negotiate teachers’ contracts, and set school policies. Conservation commissions may collaborate on projects with the school board or other school officials, such as offering educational programs or establishing a nature trail on school property.

Town Health Officer

The selectboard members (who serve as the town’s board of health) recommend a person to serve as the town health officer, and then the Vermont Commissioner of Health makes the appointment. The health officer’s job is to abate any potential or existing health hazards in town. Topics of concern include sewage disposal, drinking water supplies, solid wastes, hazardous materials, and rabies. This town official can be a valuable partner and resource for conservation commissions.

Town Energy Coordinator or Energy Committee

Appointed by the selectboard, the town energy coordinator is an ex officio member of the planning commission. The energy coordinator’s role is to coordinate existing energy resources in the town and to evaluate alternatives that lead to more efficient and economical use of energy resources. A conservation commission can work with an energy coordinator on mutual interests, for example, drafting an energy conservation element for the town plan, putting together a tour of energy-efficient or energy-independent homes, and working on projects that decrease energy use in transportation such as ride sharing and bicycle and pedestrian paths.

Recreation Committee

Although a recreation committee technically may or may not be a part of town government, these committees provide valuable services to the town by planning for public recreational land, facilities, and programs. The activities of a conservation commission dovetail with a recreation committee because both are concerned about offering recreational opportunities. Often, the recreation committee spends most of its time planning for activities such as baseball, soccer, swimming, tennis, urban parks, and playgrounds. Conservation commissions tend to focus on trail systems and lake and river accesses. These two groups should establish good working relationships for mutual benefits. The groups also need to discuss and determine the balance between access and resource protection. Not all wild places are suitable for recreation and the two commissions need to be on the same page about what those places are.

Lamoille River Paddlers’ Trail: A community effort is underway led by the Vermont River Conservancy, to create new opportunities for paddling and fishing along the Lamoille River. Called the Lamoille River Paddlers’ Trail, the project’s goal is to establish a network of well-maintained river access points, primitive campsites, and portage trails from the river’s headwaters west to Lake Champlain, as well as to develop recreational guides for visitors. A steering committee of local community members has been assembled to coordinate this effort, facilitated by the Vermont River Conservancy. Read More

Town Historical Society

A town historical society is not part of town government but consists of townspeople who care about a town’s history. The primary goals of historical societies are to preserve and interpret town histories and to participate in historic preservation projects. These groups can be valuable allies for conservation commissions to accomplish historic preservation projects and land conservation projects. For example, a historic building is more valuable if its historic landscape context is also maintained. Thus, these two types of projects can go hand in hand.

Generally, conservation commissions have less interaction with the following categories of town officials: listers, board of civil authority, justices of the peace, library trustees, auditors, collector of delinquent taxes, town agent, and town grand juror. Town government is much more complex and interesting than this short synopsis suggests. It is relevant to conservation commissions, for example, that a town must have an approved capital plan and budget before it can levy impact fees on new development. Impact fees can be designated for use in conservation projects. An important job for all town officials is to help the citizenry understand the maze of town government and know how to register their views on issues early in the process.

A few parting suggestions:

  • Be aware of town politics, both in the past and present;
  • Remember that democracy depends on compromise;
  • Give praise and thanks when due!

4-7 Working Collaboratively with Other Organizations

By collaborating with other organizations, conservation commissions can address a wider range of issues with greater effectiveness and efficiency. Other organizations can provide new perspectives, increased access to information and expertise, people power, financial assistance, and a greater foundation for support. Because the environment does not respect political boundaries, conservation commissions often need to work with other groups in neighboring towns or in their region. This is especially true for projects such as shoreline issues, recreation trails, wildlife habitat and corridors, and watershed management.

Another valid reason for working collaboratively is that some funders prefer to fund proposals that involve numerous partners, thus representing a broader base of resources and support. Moreover, partnerships that form around a particular project or issue can have positive effects well past the time and scope of the original project.

To increase the effectiveness of collaborations, one conservation commission member can serve as a liaison with another group by serving as a joint member of both groups. For example, some conservation commission members are also members of a local land trust or a local river group.

Some organizations join up with several other groups because the union is more powerful. For example, a coalition is an organization of organizations working together for a common goal. A coalition amasses the power necessary to do something that cannot be done by one organization. An example of a number of conservation commissions and other groups joining together is the newly formed Champlain Valley Conservation Partnership. One of its goals is the compiling of a regional conservation priorities from existing and new information to guide local and multi-town conservation projects.

Some commissions feel that they have a wealth of resources and contacts from outside organizations, whereas others feel removed from these sources. The number and types of organizations with which conservation commissions can work are large and diverse. A few organizations that have worked with conservation commissions are scouts, students from elementary schools through colleges and universities, private environmental organizations, and state and federal government employees. If your Conservation Commission is having trouble connecting to outside groups, AVCC may be able to facilitate an introduction to possible partners.

4-8 Recruiting & Retaining Volunteers

Many conservation commission projects require large numbers of people, such as walking town roads for Green-Up Day or clearing vegetation for a new hiking trail. Volunteers can be regular contributors to a commission or can be recruited for a one-time project. Volunteers can serve informally or can be part of one of the commission’s committees (see Chapter 3-4, Committees). Using volunteers increases people power and community support.

In addition, volunteers are a pool for future members of the commission. The most common reasons that people volunteer include:

  • Attracted by the cause;
  • Enjoy being with other people;
  • Are personally satisfied from doing the work;
  • Appeals to their self-interest;
  • Enjoy helping others;
  • Gives them something to do.

How do you entice volunteers? A big part of the answer lies in good public relations and in publicity (see Chapter 5). Effective ways to get volunteers are newspaper articles and letters to the editor about the commission’s activities. People particularly respond well to encouragement from their friends and family to get involved; accordingly, commission members should activate personal networks of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Other local groups in town are good sources of volunteers.

To increase volunteerism, commissions should stay abreast of trends in volunteers. For example, adults with children may be hesitant to give up a Saturday with the family. However, if the volunteer work can involve the whole family, they may be more likely to show up. If childcare is made available for young children, more volunteers may step forward.

Community service components of school programs may be tapped for student volunteers. Many businesses are encouraging their workers to volunteer in their communities and may even have formal corporate volunteerism programs where employees are permitted to spend a certain number of days volunteering.

Volunteers are more likely to step forward if they understand what they are being asked to do and if they understand how it fits into a goal or objective of the conservation commission. This can be accomplished by writing a job description that includes what they will be doing and how long it will take.  Being clear and realistic on the time required is helpful as many volunteers are leery of open-ended commitments.

While on the job, volunteers may need training, advice, or supervision so that the job is done the way the commission wants it done. Be sure to account for this ahead of time in the division of labor such that project leaders have time to orient and supervise volunteers.

Serving refreshments, such as coffee, cider, bagels, or ice cream, will be much appreciated; these can be donated by state or locally based businesses. Recognition and appreciation are obviously important components of volunteer management. Commissions can do this in many ways:

  • Give words of thanks and praise;
  • Give warm smiles and handshakes;
  • Write thank-you notes;
  • Give a “Volunteer-of-the Year” award at town meeting.

The recruitment and organizing of volunteers require care and attention to avoid confusion, misunderstanding, and disappointment and to maintain good will and support in the community. Common sense is the best guide as well as remembering to treat volunteers as commissioners would like to be treated themselves.

Conservation commissions should keep track of volunteer hours. This can be accomplished with a sign-in sheet on a clipboard. Knowing the number of hours of volunteer support is often important for the matching, in-kind services that are necessary components of many grants and can be used in annual reports or project report-outs to the community as evidence of community support.

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