Pownal program not something to fear

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Some Pownal residents are highly suspicious of the intent of the Vermont Council on Rural Development's Climate Economy Model Communities Program, which launched here in May as the first such initiative in the state.

In general, the program brings together resident volunteers to work with council facilitators in setting a handful of priorities for projects to benefit the community — in this case, related to opportunities that might develop because of climate change and a greater focus on alternative energy and energy efficiency.

While the first effort under the Climate Communities program, the VCRD has conducted more than 50 similar community programs since the late 1990s around Vermont, working with local volunteers to focus on projects townspeople choose to pursue. In Bennington County, that includes Pownal 11 years ago and also Bennington and Manchester in recent years.

But some obviously are skeptical and insist residents should have had a town meeting style vote before applying to become the first community chosen for the new program. They contend major changes that could have significant impacts on the town, its economy and especially on the rights of property owners could occur, and that this should require a formal vote.

We just don't see anything like that happening. And obviously, judging from the more than 100 who attended a kickoff meeting for the program in late June, neither do a large number of Pownal residents.

That doesn't mean hard questions should not be asked — or that those with concerns should not have a voice. But everyone does, in fact, have a voice, and they should use that on Tuesday evening at the American Legion post when residents will choose several projects to undertake with the help of experts in energy and related fields brought to Pownal by the council.

The salient point here is that, no matter what is proposed, those who favor pursing it — and the volunteers on each task force will be town residents — will have to go through normal state and town permitting reviews, just as any business or developer would.

In other words, any decisions made Tuesday by community members will still be a long, long way from "transforming Pownal," in any sense. That will take a ton more of hard work and a no-doubt healthy and extensive debate.

There is absolutely no logical reason to fear any of this, especially if one looks at the list of possible projects that have been thus far been suggested. Residents can find the full list on the Pownal Front Porch Forum site, along with a copy of the petition calling for a townwide vote.

The best course for residents would be to read the list, check off what they like or don't like, and come to the community-wide meeting Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. and have their say. Some in town have termed the process used to select project priorities undemocratic, but this type of meeting sounds like a definition of democracy.

Some also fear "outside experts" telling Pownal what it should do, but based on two decades of similar Vermont Council on Rural Development-led community programs around Vermont, that fear is also groundless. The council has an excellent reputation around the state and isn't in the business of ramming projects or programs down anyone's throat.

If anything, Pownal stands to gain by hearing what these "outsiders" have to say, having no obligation to believe them or take their advice.

Unfortunately, knee-jerk anti-government, anti-outsider sentiment seems to be peaking in the Trump era, replacing what was once healthy skepticism that might be flipped one day, once people got to know one another.

What is being offered here is a chance for Pownal to move out front of the energy-related changes being forced on everyone in an era of emerging climate change and the economic and lifestyle adjustments that will follow. As the program literature states, this is an opportunity for the selected communities to develop model programs that could lead the state, or the nation, in this regard.

Alternatively, if Pownal actually does vote to reject this offer of free planning and technical assistance from government and business leaders from around Vermont, that would send a message of "Don't bother doing anything for Pownal — leave us alone!"

And that would likely be precisely what happens.

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