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Our opinion: Time for other voices to be heard in Pownal


Editorial as seen in the Bennington Banner:

Well, we've heard from those Pownal residents pushing a libertarianistic viewpoint at meetings for the Empower Pownal program and more recently during a hearing on the revised town plan.

They've made their points ad nauseam during those meetings and others, and reinforced their arguments through petition drives, tag-team commenting on the Banner Facebook page and elsewhere.

They are using the democratic process, which is admirable, although some of the conduct at meetings has bordered on badgering of officials, and there were reports of cyberbullying of those who don't happen to agree.

And someone circulated a misleading missive among mobile home park residents, riling people up by insinuating there were plans afoot to close the parks. That sounds more like a tactic for a state or national political campaign.

The problem we have with this movement is not that they're so active, but that we think they often express slanted, ill-informed or flat-out wrong opinions, which if swallowed whole, can only sour the future for Pownal. These views need to be countered by some more progressive opinions if any reasonable compromises are possible in the long run.

The basic argument seems to be that government can't be trusted because there must be some hidden agenda lurking, and that any initiative that could possibly impact the "rights" or "lifestyles" of Pownal residents should be fiercely rooted out.

That was certainly the message as this group mounted attack after attack on the Empower Pownal initiative, based on the premise that this volunteer-led program had hidden agendas — such as opening the door to massive wind or solar projects in town and bringing in state officials and outside energy experts to "tell Pownal what to do."

All of this seems to us — just saying — highly irrational, if not paranoid. It seems to reflect a negative view of government that goes well beyond the justifiable skepticism that others, say like journalists, always maintain when dealing with public officials and business types.

But the basic point of trying to remain reasonable and objective is to listen first, decide afterward. No one should march rigidly along with a government-is-terrible attitude, because that is manifestly self-defeating in a country where we are the government.

A town that begins to always react negatively will lose much in the long run. In fact, Pownal already might have a reputation in the state as just such a contrarian community.

We don't think that is true of Pownal, but we also wonder where other town residents stand on these issues. Because they have mostly remained silent, perhaps waiting for this storm of activism to blow over.

Apart from some private grumbling, no one — including elected and appointed officials — has called out this activist group on its one-sided vision of Pownal and/or state government.

There is still time, however, as there will be more hearings on the Planning Commission's draft town plan before the Select Board. We think that in general the commission's vision is a reasonable one and shouldn't be shredded during the approval process into meaningless mush.

As for the Empower Pownal program, which was to have residents choose five volunteer projects that might help the town prepare for changes likely because of climate change, the relentless opposition pretty much ensured that the project choices would not even mention energy issues.

In other words, the state officials and energy experts the nonprofit Vermont Council on Rural Development lined up to assist these volunteer groups on projects might have very little to do. They also might be shaking their heads and wondering what got into town residents.

The VCRD has facilitated more than 50 similar programs around Vermont — including one in Pownal about a decade ago — but we would bet they have never encountered such an outpouring of wild suspicion. Pownal was the first community selected for the council's new Climate Communities program, but it's likely they are now looking forward to working in Middlebury, the second community selected for 2017.

Both during meetings for that program and in debate on the town plan, the issues of "smart growth" and individual rights and freedom to pursue a particular lifestyle have been the focus for many commenters. The message seems to be that there can be no restrictions placed on either.

But let us mention that Pownal endured an extended period of "dumb growth" after the former Green Mountain Race Track opened in the early 1960s, primarily because it lacked zoning (i.e., dreaded government regulation).

The town is still paying a price for that in the form of 100 mobile homes located in flood zones — the most of any Vermont community — and some haphazard (to be kind) development of other dwellings and business sites, along main highways and back on the side roads as well. Not to mention countless unregistered or junk vehicles adorning too many yards.

And Pownal, unlike some similar size towns in the county, was forced to build a wastewater plant to deal with pollution in the Hoosic River and groundwater. Those sewer bills are a price the town is paying for lack of effective government, and something that should remind residents every time they pay them that often government actually is the solution, not the problem.

As for fears that the state or the town might force some to change their "lifestyles," perhaps that would be a positive development in many cases.

Government, in fact, is what we all make it; it's also what you see when you look in the mirror, provided you take the time to understand the issues and get involved, especially by voting. And it should be approached with an open mind in each case, not through some dogmatic lens.

Hardcore libertarian views have been a staple of some politicians and talk radio hosts since at least the 1980s, and it boils down to the simplistic claim that government is hopeless or overbearing but the "private sector" and individuals are next to godliness.

A good example of this thinking today can be found in the callous efforts of some Republicans to slash funding for health care for millions and hand more tax reductions to the wealthy and corporations.

People who profess or echo that kind of philosophy often claim they want to be completely free of government regulation or oversight. But just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians when someone experiences a personal or financial crisis, when it comes time to collect Medicare, or when grandma needs to go into a nursing home and Medicaid is the only thing that might prevent a family bankruptcy.