Pownal ATV ordinance controversy escalates

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POWNAL — The Select Board is apparently forging ahead with limited transparency toward action on an ATV ordinance opening more town roads to their use, despite growing organized opposition to the process.

The board held a teleconference meeting Tuesday evening that spurred several comments and questions. Prior to the comment period, which was limited to a half hour, board members appeared to reject calls for a townwide vote on any ordinance, and didn't react to allegations that two board members — Robert Jarvis and Harry "Jamie" Percey — have conflicts of interest and should recuse themselves from the issue.

In addition, Merrill Bent, of Woolmington, Campbell, Bent & Stasny, who represents more than 20 town residents, entered a statement into the meeting record that calls for the board to directly address "the two conflicts of interest I raised in my [prior] letter, with Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Percey both stating the basis for their refusal to recuse," and explain "how the board will ensure actual enforcement, monitor law enforcement activities, and make sure that the police are fulfilling their contractual obligations?"

Objects to removal

Bent also had objected "to removal of a public participant who was raising procedural issues during the meeting. Mr. [Peter] Hillman is absolutely correct that the procedural [conflict of interest] issue must be addressed before the discussion continues with the inclusion of conflicted board members I also ask that the board directly address the two conflicts raised in the letter I sent yesterday and make a record today with regard to the board's response to the recusal requests, and the response must be accurately and completely reflected in the minutes for this meeting for purposes of a challenge in the Superior Court."

Hillman had previously raised conflict of interest questions regarding the board members.

`Looming' issues

Speaking for her clients, Bent said, "The looming questions that have not been addressed are (1) where these activities are supposed to be taking place, and (2) how regulations — including which roads are open — will be enforced."

Each road proposed for allowing ATV access "must be assessed individually to determine whether it makes any sense to open it, what trails it provides access to, and particularized safety concerns," Bent continued. "At the moment there is no meaningful enforcement. In fact, the town responded to our public records act request that it has no records that any citations have been issued at all with respect to ATV enforcement, but the town and this board have an obligation to ensure that town ordinances are enforced."

During the meeting prior to the public comment session, Jarvis discussed aspects of an ordinance he and/or others are drafting.

Meeting participants said Jarvis seemed to say that the board is considering an ordinance that would open all or most town roads to ATVs, to allow riders access to any legal trails or other sites where they could ride. Previous ordinance discussions had focused on which sections or roads would be opened, and one proposed in 2019 listed 21 road sections ATVs could access.

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Jarvis seemed to say that the new proposal would eliminate the need to specifically map and designate those sections or the areas or trails where ATVs would be allowed.

No response

None of the Select Board members responded Tuesday to an emailed request for more information and or a copy of the draft ordinance.

The board also did not respond to an email concerning other questions residents have raised, including who is providing legal advice to the board on drafting an ordinance; will a townwide vote be held; will the allegations of conflict of interest be addressed; how would enforcement be handled, and at what added cost to the town; and should the board put off consideration until large meetings are no longer prevented by the coronavirus epidemic?

Board member Michael Gardner Jr. asked during the meeting whether it would be best to put the ordinance directly to the voters, since it is likely a petition drive will force a town vote at any rate.

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However, that idea apparently was not acted on. If an ordinance is enacted by the board, it would not take effect until after an appeal waiting period, during which a petition calling for a town vote could be filed.

Several of those raising questions about the ordinance or the process have said they don't flatly oppose an ordinance but would like to have more residents involved in drafting it. Appointing a committee for that purpose has been proposed but apparently rejected by the board.

"My clients agree that a lot of the safety aspects of the ordinance are good ideas that should be developed and implemented," Bent wrote to the board. "Nobody is trying to prevent people from using ATVs altogether, but ATV use cannot interfere with the quiet use and enjoyment by other taxpayers' of their property, and cannot be allowed to pose a safety threat."

`Frustrating'

"Last night's meeting was frustrating," said Jackie Sedlock, one of the residents Bent is representing. "Concerned members of the community have no more assurance regarding their peace and safety than before. We believe a decision by the Select Board to open roads without further understanding of where they lead and how they will affect the peace and safety of our citizens is short-sighted. This initiative serves a small number who would enjoy personal recreation over citizen rights to quiet enjoyment. We continue to question this for ourselves and on behalf of our neighbors, some whom are afraid to voice worry because of possible retaliation, which we have already seen."

She added, "We believe that this Select Board is predisposed in favor of broad ATV expansion and refuses to address clear conflicts of interest, recuse themselves, and appoint an independent task force."

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Sedlock also suggested a possible compromise, saying, "Is it possible for ATV enthusiasts to make an agreement with private land owners to create trails in remote, private areas, away from those who would rather live without experiencing ATVs."

Not a new issue

The idea of allowing ATVs to operate on more Pownal roads has been debated for more than a year in the current go-round, but the issue dates back to before 2011. The board at that time passed an ordinance allowing ATVs to operate on all town roads.

Howver, that ordinance was quickly rescinded by the board after complaints from residents.

The Select Board in 2019 considered an ordinance draft that was submitted by resident John Bushee.

The proposal was not brought to a vote, but it would have opened up 21 new designated routes for ATV riders. The ordinance draft also included safety and other requirements for operating on newly designated roads, hours of operation requirements, fines for violations and other details.

Numerous residents have continue to voice support for a new ATV ordinance, both on social media and letters to the editor.

A new ATV ordinance would be expected to replace the town's current regulation, contained in a traffic ordinance. The traffic ordinance was adopted by the prior Select Board in December 2016.

That prohibits operating a recreational vehicle on any town or state aid highway in Pownal except designated open roads.

Those are Schenkar Road from the intersection of Old Military Road; Old Military Road, from the intersection of Schenkar Road; and Old Military Road heading south to the Williamstown, Mass., line. Also, County Road from the point of intersection with Schenkar Road to the Stamford town line; Cross Roads from the intersection of Maple Grove Road to the intersection of South Stream Road to South Stream Road.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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