Amid controversy, residents decide on five town projects

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POWNAL — About 120 town residents whittled down a list of proposed community-oriented projects from 16 to five, but not before critics of the Vermont Council on Rural Development-led initiative continued to press their objections.

That included attempts to re-argue points debated in the media and elsewhere over the past month, leading to a few flurries of raised voices from both supporters and opponents, and finally an apparent attempt to "stuff the ballot box," so to speak, when some 30 unofficial "dot voting" stickers were discovered among the official stickers passed out to meeting participants.

"Despite the opposition group's efforts to obstruct the Empower Pownal meetings by spreading misinformation and fear about the program, ultimately their message was not as powerful as the hope and goodwill between neighbors that came out of last night's meeting," Shannon Barsotti, a Planning Commission member and chairwoman of the effort, said following the three-hour session Tuesday.

"The Vermont Council on Rural Development led the discussion calmly and fairly, and it was clear that none of the ideas for action would threaten the citizens of Pownal," Barsotti said.

A vocal group has raised concerns about Pownal participating in the council's new Climate Economy Model Communities Program, and they are calling in a circulating petition for a townwide, town-meeting style vote on anything that might result from the volunteer-led program.

At the start of the meeting, another Planning Commission member, Bonnie Cutler, said the decision to apply for the program was made this spring by the chairman and Barsotti without a commission meeting and vote.

She and resident Donna Lauzon argued that this constituted a violation of the state's open meeting law and indicated that a complaint would be filed with the Secretary of State's office.

Shouted comments by those on both sides of the issue followed for a few moments before VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello led the meeting back to the agenda of selecting the final five initiative priorities through the "dot voting" process.

Costello said the way Pownal applied for the program was typical of what other communities have done for council community visit programs, in that the Select Board approved the application on behalf of the town. They did so after meeting with Barsotti, who said she filled in the application paperwork.

Costello added that the communitywide session itself was "not a meeting that is subject to the open meeting law," didn't require formal posting procedures, and would include no formal voting. In fact, he said, children present could take part in the "voting," and some apparently did attach stickers for their project priorities.

Select Board Chairman Nelson Brownell thanked residents on both sides of the issue for attending, adding, "I think with this long list [of projects] here, we should be able to find something that is good for Pownal."

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The volunteer sessions are no different than any group of residents meeting to decide to pursue a community-oriented project, Costello said, but in this case the council is facilitating the meetings and will later bring in state officials or experts from businesses or organizations to share their expertise with five volunteer task forces.

The general themes of the Climate Communities program revolve around initiatives that could take advantage of alternative energy or energy efficiency projects that might make the town a leader — or model community — in responding to the effects of climate change.

Supporters of the local program contend that setting priorities is only the first step for any of the projects, which would still have to go through normal permitting processes and seek state, local or grant funding if that is required.

The volunteers who selected the name Empower Pownal and VCRD representatives are conducting the first effort under the new program. However, the council has conducted more than 50 similar programs around Vermont over two decades, facilitating discussions leading to selection by resident participants of a handful of betterment projects to pursue.

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Projects whittled down

Selected during the session at the American Legion post were projects to encourage agriculture businesses, expand trail systems and other recreational activities, foster incubator programs in underutilized buildings to promote job growth, form a cooperative network for local food producers, and formalize a community Green Up-style clean-up and beautification effort to operate year-round in Pownal.

Those initiatives were selected from 16 proposals developed during a June 24 community session. This was accomplished through two rounds of "voting" by participants affixing their quota of colored circles to the project descriptions they favored — or a different color to those they opposed — which were posted on two walls in the room.

The controversy that has built in recent weeks during town board meetings and on social media, in the Bennington Banner and in comments on the Pownal Front Porch Forum website led the council to allow "no" as well as "yes" votes for the first time during a community visit program.

"This is a first," Costello said, adding that it was a modification in response to the claim from some that "there is no way to vote `no'" on projects, which people contended could significantly change the town and force lifestyle changes.

A concern expressed by resident Robert Jarvis and others was that SmartGrowth priorities of encouraging building and development in central areas of a town and leaving open space outside those zones was central to the thinking behind the Climate Communities program.

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Jarvis, who has pressed that argument in meetings and in letters and web postings, asked for time during the session to reiterate those concerns. He said they were based on extensive research on SmartGrowth and a close reading of reports posted on the VCRD website.

He was critical of a Bennington Banner editorial that argued that the VCRD program was not something for residents to fear because it was volunteer-led and was democratic in nature, something Jarvis has disputed.

Barsotti told residents she thought that despite disagreements, "I think we can agree we are all here for the same reason; we all care about Pownal."

During the "dot voting," many of those who voiced criticism of the program, did participate.

In announcing the results, Costello first noted that some 30 unofficial stickers marked "no" had been affixed to the posted sheets and were not of the type handed out by the VCRD facilitators.

He asked whether those "votes" should be counted anyway, but that idea was rejected by a large majority of those present.

Climate Communities Director Jon Copans said volunteers are now being solicited for the five task force teams that will further refine and pursue initiatives under the selected topics.

He said the next community meeting will be in late August, when state officials and representatives from Green Mountain Power, Efficiency Vermont and other entities will come to Pownal to meet with the task force groups to discuss options and ideas.

GMP and Efficiency Vermont are partnering with the VCRD on the program, which will be offered to two selected communities per year. Middlebury was selected for the next community visit and will begin next month.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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