Group seeks restraining order against Pownal board
BENNINGTON — A group of residents opposed to the way the Select Board is considering an ordinance allowing all-terrain-vehicles on more town roads seeks a restraining order and alleges continued violations of the state's Open Meeting Law.
Pownal Citizens for Safer Roads, LLC, names in a complaint filed by attorney Merrill Bent the town and the board members, including Angie Rawling, the chairwoman; Michael Gardner, Harry Percey, Ronald Bisson and Robert Jarvis.
The complaint was filed Thursday in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division.
The group, which is said to include more than two dozen residents, formed in recent weeks as the board continued work on the proposed ordinance. Bent, of Woolmington, Campbell, Bent & Stasny, was retained to represent the group, and she has registered meeting law and other complaints about meetings, which are being held as videoconferences during the coronavirus pandemic.
Opponents have called on the board to hold off work on an ordinance that has numerous residents on both sides of the issue until state health officials loosen distancing restrictions preventing open public meetings. They also contend the matter should be put to the entire town as a ballot question, rather than approved by the Select Board alone.
During a meeting earlier this month, Gardner proposed that the ordinance be submitted to the voters by the board, since it will likely be the target of a petition drive to force a town meeting vote. But that idea was never brought to a board vote.
The complaint also contends that if residents are forced to collect the necessary 5 percent of voter signatures to put an ordinance question to voters that could expose them unnecessarily to COVID-19.
The opponents have called for limiting any expansion of roadways to ATV use to specifically named segments and for increased law enforcement to address illegal or dangerous behavior by riders, which they contend is already rampant in many areas of Pownal.
In addition, opponents have proposed that a representative committee be formed to help draft an ATV ordinance, but the board has rejected that idea.
The complaint filed with the court states that "members of the Select Board have repeatedly violated of their obligations under Vermont's Open Meeting Law, effectively denying Pownal residents their statutory rights to open meetings and their constitutional rights to petition the government."
Bent writes that the board "seeks to pass an ordinance that would open all local roads in the entire town of Pownal to use by all-terrain-vehicles. But the Select Board does not want to do the heavy lifting of conducting adequate safety and traffic review, reviewing each road in question for suitability of use, or even considering what measures would need to be in place to enforce the new ordinance, in spite of rampant and well-documented problems with ATV use in town."
In pushing that goal, the complaint states, the board has "removed members of the public from remote public hearings, has failed to ensure adequate opportunity for public participation, and has routinely cut off concerned citizens based on arbitrary time limitations."
The complaint states that, "In response to the question [from Bent]: `So you want to sit there in silence rather than allow me to speak on behalf of 20-plus Pownal residents?' Members of the board quickly responded, `That is correct, ma'am' and muted the line."
The complaint asserts that "the sentiment expressed in that exchange is emblematic of the entire process to date. The pattern of violations and cavalier attitude towards public participation is indicative of the true intention: to take advantage of a global pandemic to rush through a controversial ordinance that will have significant and long-lasting impact on the entire town, at the expense of meaningful public participation in the democratic process."
The complaint seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting the board from refusing to allow the group members to be represented by their attorney during meetings and refusing to allow group members to yield time to their attorney; from prohibiting the board members from discussing the ordinance except during warned meetings, and prohibiting the board from holding meetings on the ordinance until the town can hold open public meetings or until the state approves the collection of signatures to force a ballot question vote electronically.
No immediate comment
Contacted via email Friday, Rawling declined to comment at this time. Gardner, the vice chairman, referred comment to town counsel Robert Fisher, of Fisher & Fisher, of Brattleboro.
The attorney did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
The idea of allowing ATVs to operate on more roads dates back to before 2011, when the board at that time passed an ordinance allowing ATVs to operate on all town roads.
However, that ordinance was 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 would have opened up 21 new designated routes for ATV riders. The ordinance draft included safety and other requirements for operating on newly designated roads, hours of operation requirements, fines for violations and other details.
Numerous residents have advocated for such an ordinance. Some continue to voice support on social media, in letters to the editor and online forums and during videoconference meetings.
A new ordinance apparently would replace the town's current regulation, which is contained in a traffic ordinance.
That ordinance allows operating a recreational vehicle only on 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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