Residents want changes in Pownal town plan
POWNAL — Fears over potential impacts from a revised Pownal Town Plan clearly boosted attendance during a public hearing Tuesday before the Planning Commission.
Select Board Chairman and Zoning Administrator Nelson Brownell said similar meetings in the past "usually had three or four people" attend, not the approximately 50 who turned out for the commission's first hearing on its draft revision.
Distrust of government was the common theme, as it was during recent meetings of the Vermont Council on Rural Development's Climate Communities initiative in Pownal. That sentiment continued Tuesday in the remarks of many of the three dozen speakers.
Concerns were voiced over the future of mobile home parks, the siting of alternative energy facilities; a town center designation for the southern section of town, and over the impacts of proposed housing rehabilitation on rents and taxes for those on fixed incomes.
A section in the draft plan suggesting relocation of mobile homes from areas susceptible to flooding sparked a resident of the Alta Gardens Mobile Home Park to comment, "Now you're saying you want to close the mobile home parks."
"No one here on this Planning Commission wants to close any of the parks," Chairman Michael Slattery responded. "I am not sure where you got that. It does not say that in the plan."
Town officials said many of those attending the hearing — the first of two the commission scheduled for this week — were residents of town parks.
Another resident, Rebecca Dragon, said mobile homes were referred to improperly in statements in the 135-page draft plan, which was prepared by the commission with the help of consultants.
Mobile homes are mentioned separately concerning efforts — including relocation from flood zones — to protect them from high water, train derailments or other disasters, Dragon said, calling for that wording to be changed to include all dwellings or removed.
She also requested language to specify what would constitute a natural or other calamity and under what circumstances any dwelling could be relocated.
Section on housing
In the section on housing, the plan seeks to "encourage manufactured home community owners and operators to seek assistance for upgrading their developments," listing as a possible action meetings "with mobile home park owners and community residents to develop mutually acceptable strategies to flood-proof structures in the flood zone or relocate residents to other areas."
And the plan suggests seeking funding from "Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for the acquisition of distressed mobile home parks and relocation of residents to safe housing in Pownal."
There are 320 mobile homes in town, according to data in the plan, with 228 located in eight parks. The plan cites a survey that found 100 of these homes to be in a flood hazard area, the highest number of any community in Vermont.
Many of the homes stem from the population growth spurt following the opening of Green Mountain Race Track in the early 1960s, according to the plan, and remain without significant upgrades since that era.
Concerns also were expressed about the effects of proposed housing rehabilitation programs and about the designation of the Route 7-Route 346 area in south Pownal as one of three town centers, considered a good site for future development because of the existence of utilities and other factors.
Resident Dorothea Izzo questioned the designation of a town center around the junction of Route 7 and Route 346, saying traffic is already significant and could increase. A need for sidewalks or other upgrades could increase taxes, she said, having the greatest impact on residents on a fixed income.
Housing rehabilitation programs also could lead to fewer rental options and higher rents and tax bills, "which is not going to help us," she said.
Robert Jarvis said he believes the idea of boosting the economy and employment opportunities by focusing in part on upgrading the town's aging housing stock is the wrong approach. He suggested more of a focus on increasing employment locally, adding, "Then people could upgrade their own houses."
Fred Miller said he believes there are too many statistical tables and too much data in the plan, which he said should be cut down in a section on energy "from 18 pages to four pages."
He also said he worries about "wind [power facilities] being pushed on communities" and doesn't believe the plan adequately protects Pownal on that score, especially concerning the Taconic Ridge along the New York border.
Miller later commented on the long-term renewable energy goals required of communities by the state, saying the Planning Commission should "stand up to the state" and say, "We don't work for you, and we are not going to adjust our lifestyle. We're not going to be coerced into adjusting our lifestyle; we're going to do it our own way."
Offering a general comment toward the end of the session, Gene Eldridge said he moved to town 27 years ago and is concerned that, unlike when the former horse and greyhound track operated here, "there is nothing between the Williamstown (Mass.) border and Bennington."
That should change, he said.
More meetings scheduled
Slattery said that in addition to the two hearings, the commission has scheduled two special meetings in October, on the 10th and 16th, to field additional questions about the draft plan and follow up on suggestions from residents.
The revised plan will then go to the Select Board, which will hold at least two hearings of its own before voting, he said. A review on the regional level and by the state will follow, taking the process into 2018.
Several residents also vowed during a recent Select Board meeting to gather enough signatures to force a townwide vote on the plan.
The state requires that municipal plans be updated every eight years. Pownal's plan has expired, Slattery said, which affects a community's ability to received state municipal planning grants.
The commission has been working on a revised plan since 2013, he said, along with the Bennington County Regional Commission and a consulting firm, LandWorks.
Each commenter Tuesday was also asked to leave contact information for a follow-up response from the commission, which will notify residents whether they have made changes based on their comments.
Most of those who proposed changes in the plan also were vocal in opposing or criticizing the VCRD's Empower Pownal initiative, which focuses on projects by volunteers to help prepare the community to take advantage of economic or other opportunities emerging because of climate change. Some of the suspicion of opponents targeted the officials or energy industry experts the VCRD brought to Pownal from elsewhere in the state to assist the six volunteer groups with their projects.
Despite criticism of Empower Pownal and the normally routine town plan revision, one town official expressed encouragement Tuesday that interest in what is happening in town and in Vermont in general has surged since the spring — and that some of those attending meetings to voice concerns also have begun volunteering to serve on town boards or commissions.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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