Petition calls for vote on Empower Pownal plans
By Jim Therrien
POWNAL — Opponents of the Vermont Council on Rural Development-sponsored Empower Pownal initiative have taken their suspicions and concerns about the program to a higher level in submitting a petition to the Select Board with 172 voter signatures.
Dorothy Izzo, Robert Jarvis and several other residents, who have expressed concerns about the council's first effort under its statewide Climate Economy Model Communities Program, presented the petition during an Aug. 10 board meeting.
The next community-wide meeting for the Climate Communities program is set for Tuesday at the elementary school, beginning at 6:30 p.m., and critics of the initiative indicated they plan to attend — as many have during two prior sessions.
Izzo, who also read a statement during the board meeting, said the petition showed they are "not a tiny majority," and that she believes those with concerns are "actually a silent majority."
She added, "I think you would find many more residents share our concerns," and their desire that the town "not fast-track" the initiative.
The petition requests that no actions be taken on any project that results from the Empower Pownal program, and that "no town resources, human or financial" are deployed "until there is a legal townwide vote on each initiative."
Select Board Chairman Nelson Brownell said he had "heard you loud and clear," but he reiterated prior statements — and statements from program supporters and VCRD representatives — that the initiatives proposed were all selected by volunteers who may or may not seek any funding or assistance from the town.
He and other board members said that any significant funding or other request would normally have to go through town or state permitting and, if involving financial support, almost certainly would go to a town meeting vote.
The same would be true of any zoning or ordinance changes that might be proposed, such as to facilitate alternate energy projects or conservation initiatives, they said.
The town clerk's office had determined that the signatures were of residents on the voter list, but Brownell said the petition would not force Pownal to hold a meeting and vote, because the Empower Pownal effort is volunteer led and unrelated to the town or a specific decision by a town board.
"We are just trying to get some volunteers together and help Pownal," board member Bruce Martell said at one point during the meeting. "We're not looking for money. We've got to get together and help Pownal. Nobody is trying to hurt Pownal. Don't get in groups and fight each other."
But suspicion of government — particularly at the state level, and of the nonprofit VCRD — remained strong, with opponents telling the board they could see "a hidden agenda" in the program.
Jarvis and others have contended that they see SmartGrowth development principles — generally using zoning or other regulation to encourage growth in town centers, rather than allow sprawl development — and an overriding goal of pushing the ambitious alternative energy targets the state has set as embedded in the Climate Communities program.
Opponents of Empower Pownal, as the volunteers have named the local effort, also have expressed skepticism about the government officials and energy-related business experts the VCRD has lined up to advise the volunteer task forces.
Thus far, the volunteers have whittled down a long list of possible improvement projects to five general goals, lacking specifics, but opponents said they believe outside experts might unduly influence the direction of the projects.
One speaker asked how an eminent domain proposal might take land or rights-of-way for a bike path or other project from property owners. Brownell said he knew of no proposals to take private lands, but that eminent domain "was not something town would do without going through a very legal process," and the project would have to be demonstrably in the public interest.
The five volunteer projects chosen by those attending a July 25 community meeting from among about 16 ideas were generally stated and are expected to be further refined Tuesday by residents who volunteer for the task forces.
Proposals include: Develop a network of farm and food producers in Pownal to share resources, market together, and to connect unused land with new or expanding farmers, foresters and other producers; develop more trails and rejuvenate the Hoosic River to provide better outdoor recreation opportunities; reduce barriers to starting and growing businesses and agriculture in Pownal; grow jobs in Pownal through business incubation and the redevelopment of underutilized properties; and build a communitywide Green-Up process to address roadside litter and illegal dumping.
Opponents said they will attend the next meeting, as they have past meetings, but they feel that thus far "the process was the biggest problem," in Jarvis' words.
He and others reiterated complaints that there was not enough discussion allowed and the selection of community projects was done through "a true democratic discussion of both the pros and the cons" of the program and suggested initiatives.
Shannon Barsotti, a Planning Commission member who is chairwoman of Empower Pownal, said recently, "I watched the meeting and I think the Select Board gave a fair response. The board heard citizens' concerns and reiterated that no town resources are being used by Empower Pownal because it is a volunteer-led project. Any future developments would have to go through the normal town permitting requirements."
Barsotti, who filled out the application that led to the town selection as the first for the Climate Communities program, added, "Empower Pownal has created community task forces that will work on recreation, economic development, agriculture and forestry and community green up initiatives. We have broad consensus that all of these topics are good for Pownal and they support the Pownal town plan. I think many people may have signed the petition based on misinformation about Empower Pownal that they saw online or in the letter that accompanied the petition. Moving forward, we need to be clear that this is a locally led project and not `outsiders' imposing an agenda on Pownal. VCRD has helped facilitate our discussions, but how we proceed is entirely up to us."
Jon Copans, director of the VCRD program statewide, said in an email, "the model communities program is a voluntary program and the initiatives that have come out of the process were proposed and selected by community members of Pownal. We have always been clear about the nature of VCRD's community facilitation programs — they do not displace the formal process a town would follow in making decisions about using their human or financial resources."
Select Board members also urged the opponents to participate in the ongoing revision of the town plan, which Brownell said is more likely to affect the directions the town pursue in coming years.
The group said they will be attending town plan hearings before the Planning Commission and later before the Select Board, which afterward will vote on the proposal. They said they intend to force a town-wide vote on the plan through a voter petition.
The commission has set hearings on a draft of the town plan for Sept. 19 and 20 at the elementary school.
"VCRD has worked in over 50 communities around the state over the last 20 years," Copans said, "and each of those programs have been unique and resulted in very different outcomes We remain optimistic that those who were concerned about this program will see the opportunity in those initiatives and engage productively to help make them happen."
More information about the Climate Communities program can be found at http://vtrural.org/programs/climate-economy
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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