By DANIELA VIDAL ALLEE, as seen in the Valley News:

TUNBRIDGE — A group of residents from four White River Valley towns agreed on Thursday night to prioritize economic development, housing, and conservation as part of an initiative led by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

The council has held forums on the initiative, dubbed “Our 4-Town Future,” in Sharon, Tunbridge, Royalton and Strafford since February, gathering residents’ feedback on where to steer the region.

The council developed a list of 24 priorities from those conversations, ranging from coordinating a regional food-access initiative to boosting child care. The audience of about 80 townspeople at Thursday’s meeting at Tunbridge Central School whittled the list to the final three, placing stickers on posters to indicate their preferences.

As a result of the informal vote, volunteer committees will develop plans around supporting economic development in the region, developing housing and building a senior housing facility, and conserving the working landscape and natural resources.

“We are teeing up the power of community in a focused fashion to push a common pedal that’ll have a transformational effect on the community,” Paul Costello, executive director of the development council, said on Thursday.

In 2017 and 2018, many residents from the four towns opposed the so-called NewVistas development, which was Utah engineer David Hall’s plan to spread “sustainable community” housing for up to 20,000 people on land he’d been buying near the Joseph Smith Memorial. Hall abandoned that plan last summer.

“Vermont populated Utah in the beginning,” Kate Siepmann, a Strafford Selectboard member, said to laughs from the crowd, “and here we are, as a result of Utah wanting to populate Vermont.”

“That frightened everybody,” said Nancy Chapman, a 72-year-old from Tunbridge. “We realized there’s something we might be losing.”

During Thursday’s forum, residents shared that they wanted a region that would be resilient to a changing climate, maintain its rural character, have affordable housing and more job opportunities.

For Shona Sanford-Long, “opportunity” is the key word. The 27-year-old moved back to her hometown of Royalton last year to work on her family’s farm, and she said it’s important for young people, starting in high school, to be able to see their future career choices in the area.

Sanford-Long graduated college with a degree in biology, but in high school, she didn’t know of any one in the area with a biology career. It would be great, she said, if students could say, “I can do that (job) after college, and I might be able to do it here.”

She’s also in favor of attracting young people to the area.

“But if you don’t focus on some of these other things first — housing, economic development — then how will they come?” she said as the group of residents narrowed down which regional priorities they wanted to focus on.

Costello, the development council Executive Director, said that even though residents have narrowed in on three priorities, towns and individuals still can pursue some of the other priorities and projects.

Chapman, for one, wants to improve cell service in Tunbridge.

Residents can sign up to be a part of the task force for each priority.

Community experts who attended the February and March forums will help each task force understand what resources are available to implement ideas, Costello said. They also will provide technical assistance and help groups identify funding sources.

These committees will then meet for the first time at the next four-town meeting on May 21 at the Sharon Academy where they’ll decide on first steps.

“Everything is common ground,” said Sharon Selectboard member Kevin Gish. “This is not easy work. It’s important work. Don’t stop now.”