WILLIAMSTOWN — Turnout tripped up the Select Board’s planned return to in-person meetings Monday because, on a night when the first “yearly review” of a controversial ordinance that allowed all-terrain vehicles access to nearly 20 town roads was on the agenda, too many people showed up.
The ATV issue has routinely attracted dozens — and in a couple of cases nearly 100 — residents to Select Board meetings during the past two years and, given strict state guidelines associated with COVID-19, the margin for error Monday night was non-existent.
Though residents were offered the option of remotely attending the meeting, which was supposed to be held at Williamstown’s public safety building, the meeting room there had a COVID capacity of 15 — including the five-member board and Town Manager Jackie Higgins.
Several people did attend remotely, though some complained it was hard to hear before Higgins started turning away residents who showed up in person, and Chairman Rodney Graham declined to call the meeting to order.
Though Higgins had only turned away two residents at the time, Graham noted it would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law to proceed as planned.
“We are postponing the meeting,” he declared, apologizing for the “confusion.”
Four of the board’s five members were in the room at the time, while Jasmin Couillard was among those who attended remotely.
Unable to proceed as they originally planned, board members indicated they could attend a virtual version of the meeting next Monday. They didn’t vote to change the date of the meeting because, Graham noted when pressed, this week’s meeting never happened.
“We’re not doing anything,” he said. “We’re not even calling the meeting to order.”
The non-decision decision left some scratching their heads and delayed a looming debate about dueling petitions the town recently received with respect to the ATV ordinance that narrowly survived the first special election held during the pandemic last April.
An effort to “disapprove” the board-adopted ordinance failed, 376-346, on April 21, 2020, and roughly 18 miles of town roads were opened to ATVs less than a month later.
Based on one of the recently submitted petitions, the first season was not without issues.
“An active ATV trail on Boyce Road and Tripp Road has significantly changed the nature of the Boyce Road and Tripp Road community in terms of traffic, noise and overall quality of life,” stated the cover letter accompanying the petition that was filed by some of the loudest critics of ordinance that was adopted by the board last year.
Among other things, they noted, that ordinance allows “affected property owners to petition the town to remove any town highway from the trail network based on a simple majority of all affected property owners.”
The 12 signatures on the petition represent six of the eight property owners on the two roads and reflect a pending request to remove Boyce and Tripp roads from the trail network.
Those signatures were collected and submitted to the town last month, prompting ATV enthusiasts to circulate their own petition urging the Select Board not to eliminate the only “direct access” dozens of residents have to the broader trail network.
“These two roads are the only point of access to the trail system for the residents of Rood Pond Road and surrounding areas,” the second petition states.
The petition is signed by 43 residents, most of whom live on Rood Pond, Weir and Henry roads. Some residents of Birch Lane, Mountainview Drive, Orchard Terrace and Pine Ridge Road signed the petitions as well.
Representatives of both groups showed up for the meeting that didn’t happen.
The board did not publicly discuss either of the two petitions or a third, which was signed by 11 residents and requests the full length of McCarthy Road be added to the trail network. Instead it deferred all of its scheduled business — including approval of payroll warrants — until next week.
Unlike most municipal and school boards, the Select Board met in person for most of the summer and well into the fall. However, the board’s last in-person meeting was in October, and its November and December meetings were conducted remotely as result of a surge in central Vermont COVID cases. Monday’s planned return to the face-to-face format was scratched at the start and information about how to attend the virtual version next Monday will be posted at williamstownvt.org