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Fear of empowerment: In a Vermont town, goal of ‘climate economy’ draws support, resistance


By Evan Lawrence, as seen in the Hill Country Observer:

POWNAL, Vt. - This spring, the rural town of Pownal became the first in Vermont to embark on a new planning initiative aimed at helping communities prepare for climate change and diminishing fossil-fuel supplies.

Supporters say the project, which they’ve dubbed Empower Pownal, will help the town take control of its future while providing new tools for economic development.

The planning program, guided by a statewide nonprofit group, staged a series of public forums this summer that attracted dozens of local volunteers. Participants are now discussing ways to boost local agricultural production and redevelop old commercial and industrial properties, among other goals.

But almost from the beginning, the planning project has been dogged by opposition. Some townspeople fear the concept of a “climate economy” is just the first step toward a government land grab – a fear the project’s supporters say has no basis in fact.

Critics also have raised a series of questions about how the town came to take part in the planning initiative – and even about the legality of the process. The opponents, who’ve organized under the name SOS Pownal, set up a Web page that casts the project as a threat to freedom. They’ve also circulated a petition calling for a townwide referendum before any financial resources are committed to the planning project.

And in a late August letter to the town Select Board, three opponents of Empower Pownal accused town officials of “playing fast and loose with the rules” and argued that those leading the project have tried to “marginalize” anyone with concerns.

Past and future
Pownal, with a population of 3,200, forms the southwestern corner of the state. The Hoosic River cuts through the town’s rugged mountains and farm fields, and the river and an east-west railroad alongside it helped to spawn a busy mix of local industries in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Its old mills are gone or shuttered, though, and Pownal in recent decades has become mainly a bedroom community between the commercial center of Bennington to the north and the college town of Williamstown, Mass., to the south. A local horseracing track that once attracted crowds of visitors closed in the early 1990s and is now the site of a large solar-power installation.

Shannon Barsotti, a member of the town Planning Commission, said she first learned about the new Climate Economy Model Communities Program -- a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Vermont Council on Rural Development -- in March when a friend sent her an application.
“I was puzzled by ‘climate economy,’ but when I saw it was broader than energy efficiency, I was interested,” she said.

Barsotti had participated in a similar program that the Vermont Council on Rural Development sponsored in Pownal in 2006, “so I knew VCRD was good to work with,” she added.
At the point she learned about the Climate Economy program, Barsotti said, the application deadline was only two weeks away. So she completed the application, received approval from the town Select Board, and sent it in. To her surprise, the town was accepted as the program’s first participant. (Middlebury will be the second, beginning this fall.)

She didn’t expect the project to be controversial.
“The program’s goals are all things in the Pownal town plan,” Barsotti explained.
The town plan, first adopted in 2012, is undergoing a five-year review, and town officials say any changes proposed by the review committee will be presented at two public hearings and are subject to approval from the town Select Board.

Barsotti said the goals of the town plan already include committees to promote recreation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and economic development. But those goals, she said, “haven’t been implemented.”

An era of transition?
Jon Copans, the executive director of the new Climate Economy program at the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said the goal of the project is to help communities plan and prepare for the changes likely in a warming climate.

“The thesis is that the state, the country and the world are in the midst of an economic transition as nations come up with ways to deal with climate change,” Copans said. “The places that can identify successful models will thrive. The most logical examples are renewable energy and energy efficiency. We also need to think about working lands and where food comes from. That fits squarely with the climate economy. Businesses are thinking about how to modify themselves to fit in the new economy through efficiency and other opportunities.”

But not everyone in Pownal sees “climate economy” the same way.
Michelle Pekrol and others active in SOS Pownal are deeply suspicious, believing the concept is linked to “smart growth,” a development philosophy that encourages development in existing town centers rather than allowing it to sprawl into open space and farmland.

They fear the planning project will lead to legal changes that force local people to change their way of life.

“It’s about stack-and-pack housing and moving people off their land,” Pekrol said. “We won’t be able to use our motor vehicles.”

Pekrol and other opponents say they fear a shift to compact town centers would be forced by eminent domain, high taxes and land-use restrictions.

“They’re selling it to us as bike trails and playgrounds, but what’s being said and what’s being done are two different things,” she said. “The town is being run roughshod over.”
Copans, though, suggested the opponents are seeing a threat where none is intended.
“We could never imagine anything in this process leading to land taken by eminent domain,” Copans said. “That’s the last thing we’re interested in doing. We’re about helping people thrive in their communities and their homes. Following a community’s lead is fundamental to our approach.”

Narrowing the focus
Pownal’s program began in May, when about 30 town residents met to plan a series of public forums. In a process similar to the “community visits” format that the Council on Rural Development has used around the state, participants chose some themes to pursue in subsequent meetings: home energy efficiency; recreation, trails, health and wellness; small business development; agriculture and forestry; transportation; and local power-grid resilience and residential renewable energy development.

The first formal public forum was held June 24. More than 100 residents divided themselves into groups, each with a facilitator assigned by the model communities program, to discuss and refine the topics identified in May. County, state and federal officials from relevant departments and programs and staff from Green Mountain Power, the Vermont Community Foundation, and a local solar power company were on hand to answer questions and make suggestions. The group developed 16 topics to be narrowed down at a second meeting in July.

About 120 people came to the next forum, on July 25. They developed some of the topics from the June meeting, then voted on which topics to pursue by attaching colored stickers to their favorites. Four of those proposals received wide support:

• promoting local agriculture by sharing resources and marketing and connecting idle farmland and forest with new or expanding farmers and forest products businesses;
• developing more recreational trails and improving recreational opportunities along the Hoosic River;
• reducing barriers to starting and building businesses and agriculture; and
• increasing jobs in town through business incubation and the redevelopment of underutilized properties.

Attendees also approved a fifth proposal: create a community-wide, year-round program to clean up roadside litter and address illegal dumping. The issue had not been raised at the two previous meetings.

“That came out of the blue, and it struck a chord,” said Peter Hopkins, who lives in Pownal and served as chairman of the Council on Rural Development’s 2006 community visit to the town. “Most of us understand there are places in town where people dump stuff.”

Seeing a dark agenda
Pekrol and some others, though, were wary of the program. Their research into other Vermont Council on Rural Development initiatives, especially a climate summit in 2015, made them fear that the town would be coerced into rapid changes that would infringe on their property rights and liberties.

In letters to the editor of the Bennington Banner and in Web postings, Pekrol and other critics contended Barsotti had submitted the application to the program improperly. They also said notice of Empower Pownal’s initial public forum in June was mailed only to property owners on the town’s “grand list” of taxable properties, leaving out renters and residents of mobile-home parks.

The people who came to that first meeting “were not a good cross-representation of the town,” Pekrol said.

Barsotti responded that organizers relied on the grand list because it has more names than the town’s voter registration list. Fliers also were posted around town and sent home with students at Pownal Elementary School and Oak Hill Children’s Center, she said.

Some critics claimed the facilitators at the June forum brought what Pekrol called “pre-selected priorities” and tried to steer the discussion. Opponents also said the July forum only allowed people to vote for projects they wanted, not against projects they might oppose, though Barsotti said “no” votes were allowed.

“We think it’s great that people want to work together to improve the town,” Pekrol said. “But one person’s improvement may not be to someone else’s liking.”

Organizers of the model communities program “need to slow down and do more outreach,” she said. “People still have no idea what this is all about.”

Fred Miller, another opponent, suggested the program is being pushed by the state, even though the Vermont Council on Rural Development is independent of the state government.
“The program has a very large scope, and it starts in Montpelier,” Miller said. “This has all the appearances of being rammed down our throats very fast.”

Call for a referendum
Before the July meeting, SOS Pownal drew up a petition alleging that the program was a cover for a government land grab. It asked that the town take no action on any initiatives coming out of the July 25 forum and devote no resources to them until they could be put to a legal townwide vote.

SOS Pownal posted the petition online and placed a copy of it at a local store. Members delivered the petition, with 172 signatures, to the Select Board at its Aug. 10 meeting.
Barsotti said she was “very surprised” by the opposition.

“It’s discouraging,” she said. “But I think the more people learn about it, the more comfortable they’ll be.”

She noted that “for some people, the word ‘energy’ is very divisive.”
At the July forum, she added, “anything with that word in it was voted down.”
“The overwhelming number of votes were for recreation and agriculture,” Barsotti said. “People in Pownal really care about keeping that part of town.”

As for allegations that an outside group was dictating topics, Barsotti pointed to the green-up proposal that didn’t surface until the July meeting.

In any case, she said, after the late-August forum, facilitators from the Council on Rural Development won’t be taking part regularly in Empower Pownal sessions, though they will be available for assistance.

“It’s all Pownal people now,” Barsotti said after the August session. “We have a lot of good ideas and people who are ready to work on them.”

Like Barsotti, Hopkins said he hadn’t expected Empower Pownal to draw a backlash.
“That’s part of being a community,” he said. “There’s a certain misunderstanding of what the goals are, how it works, and how it fits in with local representational government.”
Barsotti stressed that Empower Pownal isn’t a project of the town government or the local Planning Commission. Instead, she said, it’s being carried out by a volunteer citizen coalition that includes some town officials.

‘Making assumptions’
Nelson Brownell, the town Select Board chairman, defended the way in which Barsotti applied for the program.

“These things have been done before by citizens,” he said. “People come in, ask for a grant application approval, and the board usually approves. The board makes its decisions based on facts and information.”

Opponents “are making assumptions that we were already making decisions,” Brownell said. “There have been no monetary decisions where the town would have to worry about indebtedness.

“People are concerned about property rights and eminent domain,” Brownell added, but he said that none of the Empower Pownal initiatives are likely to “affect other people’s rights.”
“People have fears of what might be,” he said. “That’s why you need these discussions.”
Brownell, Hopkins and Barsotti also said they were surprised by the negative reaction to the Climate Economy program given that the town had had a good experience working with the Vermont Council on Rural Development in 2006.

“In 2006, we had no Internet service,” Barsotti said. “We mobilized to get better broadband coverage. VCRD helped us with the startup of the Front Porch Forum, a community bulletin board online. Pownal was one of the first towns to adopt it.”

Brownell said that as a result of the 2006 project, “fiber-optics and cell towers came in” to Pownal.

“It was a good push in the right direction,” he said.
Another achievement from 2006 was creation of a map showing local points of interest and businesses, Hopkins said. The map enabled people to find and hire local plumbers or electricians, for example, he said.

On the other hand, “there was strong opposition” to an initiative put forth in the 2006 effort to deal with problems in the town’s mobile home parks, Brownell said.

“It never got too far,” he recalled.
State Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, participated in the 2006 program and attended this year’s meetings of the Empower Pownal initiative. He signed up to serve on the new program’s economic development task force.

Botzow said he’s been impressed by the Council on Rural Development’s work during his years in the Legislature, and that changes that come out of its community meetings can have broader impact.

Better broadband coverage, for example, “is a statewide interest,” Botzow said. And the council’s work with Pownal on the issue in 2006, he suggested, helped the town to get better service.
“When I went to state regulators and broadband providers, I had the community behind me,” Botzow said.

Although Pownal’s 2006 housing initiative stalled, the issues it identified led to the state adopting policies governing rent-to-own arrangements in mobile home parks and park road maintenance, he added.

Fears that state government is forcing certain changes through the model communities program are groundless, Botzow said.

“The program has congruences with state goals, but there’s no mandating here,” he said. “The controls on overreach are the people themselves. I don’t have those concerns. On the bright side, because people are paying attention and have diverse opinions, the results will be better all the way around.”

Reversing a decline?
Despite differing views on the Empower Pownal program, both sides seem to agree that life in Pownal was once better.

“I remember Pownal when it was a vibrant community,” said Miller, a lifelong town resident. “It had restaurants, stores, factories and racetracks.”

Although he’d like to see revitalization, “I don’t want to see it done under climate change,” Miller said. “That could create roadblocks to getting more industry. One focus limits the possibilities.”
Brownell also said Pownal has lost some of the features that made it good place to live in decades past. But he suggested the planning project might help to remedy that.

“The town used to have four restaurants, three motels, garages and businesses,” Brownell said. “The town used to have 1,800 people employed here. People could walk to work. All that’s gone.”
The town is down to two dairy farms, with other farmland unused. Although three or four new houses are built every year, the gain is offset by abandonment of other housing, especially mobile homes, he said. The local elementary school once enrolled more than 400 pupils but now has only 276.

People who signed up for task forces and those who were interested in joining met on Aug. 29 to choose leaders for the panels and set long- and short-term goals and meeting dates, Barsotti said.

Copans said officials from his organization and from various state agencies and other entities are available to help.

“The goal and role of the task forces is finding funding sources,” whether those are state, federal, or private, Copans said. “When communities rally behind local initiatives, funding tends to follow. Any deployment of town resources will have to go through the normal town approval process.”
Barsotti hopes the conflict can be resolved if people who are skeptical of the program come to meetings.

“It’s locally driven,” she said. “All the goals are in the town plan. Let’s democratize the planning process. We all care about Pownal. Not everything will get a ton of traction, but even if just a few ideas take off, it’ll be great.”

In an e-mail message sent the day after the Aug. 29 session, Barsotti sounded optimistic that opposition to Empower Pownal was fading.

“Judging from last night’s positive meeting,” she wrote, “the controversy seems to have passed now that people understand what the program is actually about.”

But in a letter sent to the town Select Board the day before the August session, Pekrol and two other opponents, Melissa Collins and Robert Jarvis, didn’t sound mollified.

“Any potential good this program could do for Pownal has been buried under a manipulative fast-tracked process that does not allow for discussion of pros and cons, conflicting stories about how this program was applied for and who wrote the application and support letters, and an invitation process that neglected a large portion of our registered voters,” the three wrote.
Miller, though he remains an opponent, said in an interview that he’s willing to listen to the project’s supporters.

“I’d like to know more” about the program, he said. “I can change my mind. Invite me to the conversation.”