Community assesses strengths and weaknesses

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ALGIERS — No one was expecting the turnout at the Guilford Community Church when four nonprofits asked the people of Algiers Village to come together to talk about what they love, hate and want to see more of in their community.

The meeting was arranged by the Friends of Algiers Village, Guilford Preservation Inc., Community Collaborative for Guilford and the Guilford Community Church. The nonprofits worked with the Windham Regional Commission; they hope to use the results of the discussion to help them build a vision plan. The plan is one of many steps that must happen for the village to achieve a long-term goal of joining the Living Community Challenge. A Living Community is completely sustainable — it focuses on sense of place, water, energy, health and happiness, resources, equity and beauty within the community. In addition to helping communities become sustainable, the LCC is a framework for community planning and organization, according to the International Living Future Institute website.

Residents who showed up to the planning meeting on Aug. 16 were divided into five groups and given a large map of Algiers Village, though some locals said their homes were cut off on the map. On the maps, the groups were tasked with marking down aspects about their community that they liked and disliked. Then, underneath the first map was another map. On the second map, residents marked down things they'd like to see in the village in the future.

One of the popular attractions to living in a place like Guilford is the lack of zoning laws. Rebecca Eisenhandler, a school teacher, said this was why she and her partner came to Guilford. She likes how close it is to Brattleboro. The lack of zoning laws allowed the couple to build their own house. "It really made it possible for us," she said.

She also enjoys being in the forest. "We really appreciated the beauty of it," she said.

However, as a teacher, she finds that her students don't have any activities in which to participate in Guilford. "Several of my middle school students come from Guilford and they spend no time in Guilford," she said.

As a young adult, Eisenhandler also has trouble finding other young people in her community.

"Not that I don't love my neighbors. I love my neighbors, but we are by far the youngest people on our street," she said. "It would be nice to attract some young adults."

When asked why he moved to Guilford, Richard Griffith gave his group a deadpan stare and replied, "My wife." Still, he thinks his town and village have some particular strengths, chief among them being the Guilford Country Store.

"The conversations, they're not at the tables, they're between tables," he said. "It's not like a restaurant; it's the fact that people gather there that's the beauty." He also appreciates the views his home provides him with and the proximity to Brattleboro.

"I think the beauty of Guilford is that it has the potential of being the bedroom community for Brattleboro," he said. "I don't think it's going to reclaim the technology and jobs and so forth. But I think it does have the potential, in many ways, of providing a rural lifestyle in proximity to a rural city and that's a very valuable role to play in society. "

Not everything about living in Guilford is peachy, though. Griffith remarked that because the area is spread out, residents have to pay high taxes without seeing the benefits of the services that taxes usually provide.

"We don't have a downtown," he said. "There's no parking. And we share the same problem of all the New England states — our young people grow up, they find a job somewhere else and they move out of town."

Maryann Parrott came to Guilford as a single mother. Her house was cheap but in need of many renovations. The lack of zoning laws allowed her to fix it up herself. She was able to convert a chicken coop into an office. And she likes that her land is surrounded by land trust property.

Folks in attendance were also appreciative of local businesses, such as Richmond's Auto Service — "The best mechanic in Vermont," Parrott said.

Betty Frye came to Guilford with her husband. It was the view that sold her. "That view you can see all the way to Massachusetts," Frye said. Brattleboro's proximity was also appealing to her. "It's just a hop, skip and a jump," she said. Guilford today, she feels like, "Is building its bones."

"It just feels balanced," she said. She remarked on additions to the town such as the fire station and housing center. "I'd be remiss without talking about our brand new fire station," she said.

Many people were also happy with the swimming spots along the Broad Brook. Frye was thankful to the village's sewer system for helping clean the Broad Brook.

Frye agreed that the community needs to be more mindful of younger generations. "I want that for our community to be more well rounded," she said.

Frye also had problems with the lack of walking paths in Guildford Center.

"I got to get in my car to really walk," she said.

She was also frustrated with the invasive species that have started to pop up on her property.

Among the future plans the group would like to see implemented are walking paths, activities for young people, early childhood development projects, sidewalks and increased broadband.

"There's a lot of interesting things that could happen," said Susan McMahon, the associate director of WRC. She said the next step is to look at the suggestions, and then look at different "alternatives" the vision plan could take. One alternative could contain a plan with no new development, or with new sidewalks.

In terms of the LCC, the nonprofits are still evaluating how they'll go forward. They intend to use the community suggestions for a vision plan.

"Think of this as a feasibility study," Emily Davis, a planner at WRC, said. "We're trying to figure out whether or not it's even appropriate for the village of Algiers to apply to the Living Community Challenge."

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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