PLAINFIELD — The messages were mixed.
Voters at town meeting were clear about a few things. The proposed $868,940 municipal budget was OK with them. That included an additional $25,000 for the highway budget, $8,000 for Cutler Memorial Library, and $6,000 toward the upcoming centennial celebration for the fire department.
By Australian ballot, they — along with Marshfield residents — gave the Twinfield Union School budget the nod by a vote of 306-277.
But the meeting took more than six hours in part because of a contentious two-and-a-half hour drama over Goddard College’s proposed wood-chip incinerator. At times, the discussion lost its civility, and within the audience, which was deeply divided over the issue, neighbors were accusing one another of being “liars,” “losers” and “jerks.”
It took more than two hours to plow through 13 articles (one of which included several lengthy officers’ reports) to get to the nonbinding resolution pertinent to the school’s heating plant — an article placed on the town warning by petition.
Within moments of taking up the 14th article, all bets were off.
When resident Karen Bouffard, who lives in the neighborhood close to where the proposed plant would be built, attempted to introduce Dr. William Sammons, a Massachusetts pediatrican who maintains he has spent years studying the effects of biomass plants on public health, voters quickly took sides and tempers flared.
Sammons, who had driven up to Plainfield for town meeting, was first scolded by the moderator and then turned away by voters who refused to hear him speak. The 49-31 vote (it needed a majority) required a recount in which residents were forced to stand and be counted.
Outraged, Bouffard took the microphone and gave an angry, emotional condemnation of the town vote, calling the action “stupid” and “ridiculous.”
“Vermont will be a wasteland,” she said of the controversy over nanoparticulates associated with other biomass plants around the country. “You think you are safe? ... You are going to be breathing this crud ... You think this is OK? ... You are so wrong. I just don’t get it.”
As Sammons stood and watched, the townspeople took their debate to another level.
First, several voters voiced their shame and disappointment for refusing to accept and hear additional information. “I am embarassed and ashamed of how we have acted here today,” said Rick Levy, a resident. “Your neighbors asked (Sammons) to come.”
Then, others took their frustration out on Goddard College, which was not represented at the meeting, a fact that some voters took as a sign of arrogance and presumption.
“I think this shows their lack of commitment to this community,” said Monica Light, referring to the college’s attitude as a “theoretical neighbor.”
As the framework of the debate over health concerns slowly took shape again, voters put a question to Moderator Charles Barasch: Could the town reconsider its decision and allow Sammons to speak? After another spirited debate — with some residents saying the decision had been made once and others stating more information was needed for an educated debate — voters reconsidered by a vote of 67-18, getting the majority it needed.
Sammons spoke for 10 minutes about a range of health-related topics in his long study of biomass plants. His slideshow was too fast to be effective, so he often said he was more than willing to share his source materials with those who were interested. He said biomass had “significant risks,” was expensive and did not have a carbon-neutral footprint. He recommended natural gas as a better alternative.
Sammons’ presentation was met with skepticism and murmurs of frustration and anger.
Then, once again, neighbors to Goddard spoke about the effects the biomass plant would have on their health, neighborhood and property values.
And once again, residents came to Goddard’s defense, placing the blame on the siting process — not the project itself.
“Should we put Goddard’s feet to the fire?” asked Alex Thayer. “(The debate) is in environmental court where it belongs now.”
Dismayed at the name-calling and bickering among neighbors, Steve Farnham jokingly thanked voters “for making the meeting interesting, at least.” More seriously, he pointed out, “We are all in this together. I think we can do better than this.”
Finally, Sammons left the meeting before the debate had concluded. On the third “call the question,” the article — “Shall the Town voters oppose the construction of the Goddard College wood-chip incinerator until such time as the nano-particulate pollution dispersed into the atmosphere of Plainfield be proven not to be a health hazard to the residents thereof? — was defeated by a vote of 43-32. Again, voters were forced to stand on both sides of the debate to be counted.
One angry neighbor blurted out “(expletive) losers,” which prompted another resident to tell her “so how about shutting your mouth now.”
After a brief discussion about the tar sands issue, which got the weary voters’ nod of approval, the stragglers of Hour Six considered an impromptu motion to put Goddard College on notice a public forum should be required to air out some of the issues.
But before the motion was defeated, cooler heads suggested that while it would have been nice for the college to have someone attending town meeting, it was not required, nor was anyone formally invited.
“We all have our roles to play here ... But they had no obligation to be here today, so we cannot go on blaming them,” said Charles Cogbill.
In other business:
The town accepted the report of the cemetery commission, which included an audit from Sullivan & Powers of Montpelier.
Voters reduced the appropriation for the Washington County Youth Service Bureau/Boys& Girls Club from $500 to $300 and later added a $400 appropriation for the Twinfield Learning Center.MORE IN Central Vermont
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