Scenic Inventory for Middlebury, VT

Photograph of downtown Middlebury, VT

Photograph of downtown Middlebury, VT

The relationship of our scenic setting to our villages and planned growth areas is critical to maintaining our quality of life. As the agricultural landscape changes and as development increases, the Town needs to take a more active role in scenic resource management. We must be sensitive to the visual impact of changes such as: the loss of traditional agricultural buildings; scattered, low-density residential development; large new buildings and the impact of development on significant view corridors.
— Middlebury 2012 Town Plan

Following the Middlebury 2012 Town Plan, the Town Planner has compiled a 5-year plan of priority projects to be completed by the new Conservation Commission in charge of all conservation-related tasks. One of these is to use GIS mapping as a way to identify scenic resources and create regulations to manage these resources. By definition, scenic resources are public areas, features, and sites that are recognized, visited, and enjoyed by the general public for their inherent visual qualities. A scenic area therefore relies on access to a viewpoint and the quality of the view.

Compiling efforts by my entire class at Middlebury College, I mapped out the best viewpoints and the most visually accessible parcels in the maps below.

The map above left shows the 288 viewpoints our class of 18 was able to generate. There is an obvious concentration of large viewpoints in the vicinity of Chipman Hill Park, while there are a few small clusters in other areas of the town. In order to get a better sense of how to target policy, I identified 10 viewpoints with the largest view size and also looked at which public land parcels were most visible form the viewpoints. From my analysis, Chipman Hill Park had 9 out of the 10 largest viewpoints in Middlebury, and land parcels belonging to Green Mountain National Forest were the most visible.

From the map above right, it is clear that policies targeted at preserving scenic resources need to keep in mind maintaining accessibility to viewpoints and the land that can be viewed form those viewpoints. Based on the visual preference survey conducted in class, heavily forested areas and water were little development were the most aesthetically pleasing. Drawing from the land cover data, a majority of the view visible in public lands conforms to this aesthetic.

 

Based on understandings of existing conservation policies in place for the various parcels, I selected 9 land areas (parcels belonging to parks and forests grouped accordingly) to prioritize and separated those with conservation policies and those without. The existence of hiking trails also played a role in formulating recommendations. The table below lists the areas in priority order.

A more immediate issue however, are the implications on the Middlebury Bridge and Rail Project, whose environmental assessment was just released for public comment on April 26, 2017. While the railway does not seem to cross over any public scenic resources, construction can cause pollution which will affect the surrounding ecosystem and noise pollution is an important aspect to consider in its building. While the ease of travelling by train may attract more tourism, it can also lead to a depletin of scenic resources as a reuslt of the influx of people.

While it is useful to be able to get a broad sense of potentially important scenic resources, it remains imperative that the Conservation Commission carry out a visual preference survey amongst Middlebury residents so as to establish what cultural services the landscape provides (example from ME Scenic Assessment Handbook). Given the business around tourism in Vermont, it would be useful to use Middlebury as an example for a wider survey to establish statewide standards for scenic assessment. Photographs used in this survey could also be put up on a public forum, creating promotion material for the town and capturing scenery for its beloved residents to appreciate as well. Conversations generated from these initiatives to root value in community values will also serve as a way to connect people and benefit the general goals of the 2012 Town Plan of defining and preserving community character, increasing opportunities for social interaction in addition to the benefits to sustainability.

Methodology and Limitations

The scenic viewpoints were identified by generating random points along the ridgelines, which were identified by looking at the watershed boundaries (assuming these were the highest points of elevation), and within close proximity of roads and trails. This was so that points evaluated were within public lands so that the Conservation Commission could conceivably go about acting on these findings. Each individual GIS file could only generate 16 points as that was the maximum amount of points the Visibility tool in the GIS software allowed you to evaluate for view size and thereafter generate the viewshed from, using the digital surface model to help with this. In order to increase the scope of the study, we compiled the entire class' data together so that I could identify the 10 viewpoints with the largest view size from a much larger sample.

A visual preference survey was then conducted to form the basis for evaluating scenic resoruces and which public lands to prioritize.

 
Visual preference survey scores tallied from 14 Middlebury College students. Each person gave a score ranging from 2 (Appealing) to -2 (Unappealing), giving the maximum score of 28 and minimum score of -28 for the photographs.

Visual preference survey scores tallied from 14 Middlebury College students. Each person gave a score ranging from 2 (Appealing) to -2 (Unappealing), giving the maximum score of 28 and minimum score of -28 for the photographs.

 

Looking at the photographs in the brief visual preference survey we did in class, the highest scores were given to views that had less development, and had a significant amount of forest cover and water bodies visible. 

However, we need to keep in mind that scenic resources can be evaluated in many different ways, as it is not necessarily the largest view that defines how important the scenic resource is. Local knowledge and understanding of what is important to Middlebury's heritage and cultural identity will be crucial in moving forward with the assessment of scenic resources and formulation of policy thereafter because this will encourage more of the comunity to be involved in the stewardship of their land and foster a more integrated and grounded system of ecological management.

Nicole ChengComment