Bellows Falls residents fight detention center in village
ROCKINGHAM — A group of five individuals launched a website for their group, "Rockingham For Progress," that seeks to preserve unique history embodied by the town's heritage structures.
The group was formed Dec. 26, 2015 and has largely focused on the proposed Liberty Mill Justice Center that would be placed at 203 Paper Mill Rd. The group hopes to have the zoning law in Rockingham amended and is also discussing how the building could be used otherwise.
"The Liberty Mill Justice Center has galvanized many people in this town," said Bonnie North of Bellows Falls Village and member of Rockingham For Progress. "I think really good things are going to come from this group and we will be able to muster a lot of energy to bring about more progress from the town."
The Liberty Mill Justice Center has been a controversial topic lately in the Bellow Falls and Rockingham area. It is a proposed multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility that would be located at the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building. The space would hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are "transitioning out" or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. The two-story building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.
The facility would operate as a business and leader of the project, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark hopes that it will offer many services to detainees that he believes would help reduce the recidivism rate. The facility will offer programs such as assessment, case management, social services, education, veteran support, mental health and supervised visitation for non-custodial parents. Clark also would like to include unique features such as electronic monitoring, a Criminal Justice Information Services data center, a regional dispatch center and regional law enforcement training. Clark has emphasized that this center would not operate as a prison, but rather as one of the state's and possibly country's first "welcoming" facilities that helps detainees safely recover and transition back into society through a holistic approach.
Rockingham For Progress consists of five core members: Ellen Kreitmeier, Merrit Schnipper, Bonnie North, Charlie Hunter and Douglass Anarino — all members of Bellows Falls and Westminster. The core members launched the website and have put together the wording of a petition to have the zoning law in Rockingham amended. The petition looks to redefine "a public/municipal facility" as well as the zoning district "Riverfront 14." The petitions proposed definition of a public/municipal facility would exclude one that operates such as the Liberty Mill Justice Center. The definition asks that the definition exclude, "any facility in which more than eighteen (18) people are incarcerated or held for short-term psychological evaluation at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven (7) or more consecutive days or held for short-term psychological evaluation for thirty (30) or more consecutive days."
The petition requires signatures from 5-percent of the Rockingham's registered voters in order that it be verified by the town clerk. Once it is verified, the petition will lead to a special Town Meeting where there would be an Australian ballot regarding whether these zoning regulations would be changed.
"If the justice center successfully gets their zoning application in before we do, then it could be zoned and grandfathered in," said North. "At that point, then we could take some legal action." North did not specify which actions could be taken, but said that Merrit, a criminal defense lawyer and Kreitmeier, a state attorney for Vermont and Massachusetts understand the process.
The petition also asks that the definition of "Riverfront 14," include that "any facility in which more than eighteen (18) people are incarcerated at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven (7) or more consecutive days is not compatible with the recreational potential of riverfront property."
There are 10 core reasons the Rockingham For Progress opposes the proposed justice center. Those reasons include: high cost, no input from citizens, no accountability, current road access insufficient, no regional impact studies, no neighborhood impact studies, no school studies, revenue imbalance, potential duplication of services and disruption to recreation and native sites.
In addition to the list, North says she believe in social reform and supports Clark's ideas of changing the criminal justice system, but is discomforted by his lack of a business plan of how to go forth with the project, specifically with the budget.
"We asked again and again for some nuts and bolts figures regarding the budget and how much of the money brought in will be spent on this restorative justice work," said North. "They said they need the $250,000 USDA grant to figure that out, but that seems backwards."
North said she received a preliminary budget from Senator Jeanette White, but North felt that it was very "crude" and that then the criminal justice verbiage was "vague."
"Our groups goal is really to give people a sense their in something that can be done. There has been a feeling around town that there is nothing that we can do," said North. The group's website is rockinghamforprogress.org
Rockingham For Progress is looking into ways of how to preserve the building, which North believes represents some of the town's rich history. Ideas about what could be done with the old Liberty Mill building were discussed Thursday Jan. 14, where more than 60 individuals met at the Windham Antiques Center. The meeting was held from about 7 to 9 p.m. where citizens drew-up a long list of questions and concerns that will be eventually put online, while some will be posed to Clark.
At Thursday's meeting some of the biggest amount of excitement was clustered around ideas of what could be done with the building. Some of these included an education facility, a recreation facility with a boat landing, a vocational school, and a crafts artisan type of building. A lot of other options were discussed of what could be done with the building, just nothing related to the building of the Liberty Mill Justice Center.
The meeting was organized by residents Deborah Wright and Suzanne Groenewold.
"We held this meeting because we had an overwhelming response that we ought to have our own forum. We felt like we really needed to control what we wanted to do," said Groenewold.
The meeting was organized more as a workshop than a meeting, as Groenewold used a flip chart to facilitate the meeting and wrote down all the questions and concerns from citizens. She felt this was a structured way to facilitate a meeting and would prevent the mention of repeated ideas.
Groenewold says that the concerns of the people who attended Thursday's meeting will be recorded into a document by Wright, which will then be moved to the Rockingham For Progress website.
"The next time we hold a meeting, we would like to have a panel that would include Sheriff Keith Clark, the development director, the town manager and a person from the Selectboard," said Groenewold.
Groenewold said that Thursday's meeting was public and she was delighted to see town officials present such as some Selectboard members, Bellows Falls trustees, Bellows Falls Union High School board members and the Bellows Falls Chief of Police
"The meeting was very encouraging and I very impressed with the way it was organized and how everyone approached a sensitive issue," said North. "It made me feel proud."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.