WILLIAMSTOWN — It’s going to take more than a pandemic to derail a special election that is just weeks away and will determine whether all-terrain vehicles will have access to roughly 18 miles of town roads.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, Town Clerk Barbara Graham said Thursday there is no canceling a special election forced by petitioners hoping to keep ATVs off of the roads by overturning a controversial ordinance the Select Board adopted back in January.
As required by law, the board accepted the petition that was signed by 150 registered voters – only 122 were needed – at its March 9 meeting and agreed to warn an April 21 special election that sounded better then than it does today.
Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the meeting room at the Williamstown Public Safety Building – the one regularly used by volunteer firefighters and the local ambulance crew. In retrospect holding an election in a building frequented by first responders at a time when a respiratory disease – COVID-19 – caused by the new coronavirus is spreading doesn’t sound as logical as it did earlier this month, but that ship sailed when the warning was approved.
Graham, whose son, William, is the local fire chief, said she will be extra careful. Voters who show up will be confined to the meeting room, though poll workers may have to use the restrooms throughout the day.
Graham, who is giving most of her older poll workers the day off as a precaution, said she doesn’t know how many voters will actually turnout on April 21, but that doesn’t mean many won’t participate.
On Wednesday Graham mailed out her first batch of absentee ballots – 111 of them – even as she received 26 new requests. To put that in perspective 150 Williamstown voters requested absentee ballots for this year’s Town Meeting Day elections, which also featured the March 3 presidential primary.
Based on her conversations with concerned residents and an early surge in absentee ballot requests, Graham predicts a much larger chunk of voters who decide the issue will do so by mail.
“People are definitely afraid to go out,” she said.
With the town offices closed due to the coronavirus crisis, Graham is fielding requests for absentee ballots by phone, Facebook and occasionally face to face.
Graham said she bumped into a man who wasn’t aware of what has been a year-long controversy in Williamstown when she was mailing out the first batch of absentee ballots at the local post office on Wednesday. He asked to be added to her growing list, she said.
Graham, who has been making as-needed visits to town offices that have been closed to the public since March 16, said processing absentee ballot request is something she can do from home.
“I can fold and stuff and address all day sitting right at my dining room table,” she said.
Graham said she has the folding and stuffing part down and expects to be doing more of it as the election approaches, though the plans to mail absentee ballots out in once-a-week batches.
At a time when all Vermonters have been instructed to “stay home” and “stay safe,” Williamstown residents on both sides of the ATV ordinance are using social media to urge their neighbors to request absentee ballots and vote early.
Graham said that message seems to be getting through judging from the number of requests she has received, but it is impossible to tell which side will prevail.
Graham’s only prediction? “I think it’s going to be a close election,” she said.
The sometimes-spirited debated started a year ago when a fledgling club – the Billtown Wheelers – floated a proposal to open 20 Class 3 roads up to ATVs. The Select Board was cautiously receptive, but news accounts of the proposal galvanized residents who live along some of the roads that would be affected.
Those residents described the proposal as a radical – and in the minds of some – unwanted change that would generate additional traffic and unwanted noise, while raising safety concerns and potentially affecting property values.
Proponents of the ordinance argued it could be a boon for some Williamstown businesses and would be a convenience to many residents who own ATVs, but have to load them on trailers and transport them to get to a trail network. They claimed the concerns were overblown and the ordinance would actually allow for a level of enforcement that doesn’t currently exist.
The debate stalled action on the ordinance, led to the creation of a committee that stumbled at the start, was reconfigured and ultimately delivered a lukewarm recommendation involving the ordinance that was adopted by the Select Board in January.
The board’s approval of the ordinance, which would allow ATVs to use 20 town roads from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during a season that runs from May 15 to Oct. 15, triggered the petition drive that forced the board to schedule the April 21 election during which voters will be asked to “disapprove” the ordinance.
Due to the awkward wording of the ballot question those who support repealing the ordinance and prohibit ATVs from using town roads will want to vote “yes,” and those who believe the ordinance should stand so that recreational use of the roads can be expanded should vote “no.”
While Graham has no clue which side will prevail, she said she is certain of one thing.
“We’ll have plenty of (disinfectant) wipes and hand sanitizer at the polls,” she said.