Proposing a safe haven for bears

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WILMINGTON — Jim Burke is moving to North Carolina.

But before then, the former Select Board member and Twin Valley baseball coach is trying to make part of his property on Route 9 west a "wildlife refuge."

"I just want a safe place for animals as they have been safe on my property," Burke told the Development Review Board on Monday. "It's not a refuge for people to come see wildlife. It's for the wildlife. If you want to see wildlife, you have to buy the house."

While the board has 45 days to issue a decision, its members said the designation would not mean much legally or for taxation. They signaled that a condition of their approval would hinge on Burke transferring development rights to an organization, as the definition of "wildlife refuge" calls for such action in Wilmington's zoning ordinances.

Burke, who pleaded no contest to two criminal charges for intentionally feeding bears in November, answered questions during the hearing from Ken Spicer, executive director of the Chimney Hill Association. Spicer said part of his group's lands might be adjacent to Burke's property. Two dogs were bitten and killed by bears in two separate incidents near Chimney Hill this year.

Spicer believes bears are moving in from areas being developed by Haystack Mountain. He said he was not opposed to the proposal.

"We have a bear issue and it's not a bear issue ... it's a people issue," he said, noting that steps have been taken to avoid attracting bears.

Spicer told Burke that a wildlife refuge usually sees animals brought into a space under a state or federal license. Burke said the property will not be fenced in and animals will not be fed or encouraged to come around.

"I'm trying to sell my house," he said. "I want to attract someone who lives like I do and doesn't buy that 62 acres and says, 'I can hunt.'"

A little more than one acre would stay within the residential or commercial residential districts his property falls under so that a new owner could build an additional home on the land. Burke has been posting markers since 2008 to indicate no hunting is allowed.

Two attendees, who came to the hearing together, said they just wanted to hear about the project. Needed is "conditional use" approval as the majority of the property is in a residential district. Burke confirmed there would be no impacts on noise, traffic, roads, utilities or economic development. He said the plan fits with the character of the town.

DRB member Fred Houston told Burke he might want to consult with his legal counsel on how to transfer development rights to a wildlife group or other entity. Burke said he and his wife looked into prospects in the past but they would never agree to terms and conditions of the organizations.

"It was like you're literally giving your land to them," he said. "We were like, 'No.'"

"Understood," said DRB Chairwoman Wendy Manners, who had mentioned the board would have no other issue with the plan as it does not conflict with ordinance criteria.

Burke said he would talk to his attorney.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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