WILLIAMSTOWN — A proposal to open up portions of 20 town roads for use by all-terrain vehicles hit a speed bump during a crowded Select Board meeting Monday night.
Nearly 100 people filled the library at Williamstown Middle and High School — more than attended town meeting in March. The fate of an ordinance proposed in April and backed by members of a fledgling ATV club is suddenly in doubt and will be the subject of continued debate by a yet-to-be-appointed committee.
Board members Francis Covey and Chris Wade were designated to serve on that committee, which, Chairman Matthew Rouleau said, should include representatives of the BillTown Wheelers and residents who objected to the ordinance proposed by the club.
Both sides were well-represented during a 90-minute public hearing — a level of community engagement Rouleau recently lamented was missing from earlier meetings.
“I got my wish,” Rouleau said, surveying a much larger and more diverse audience than the one that attended last month’s board meeting or the one when the idea was first floated in April.
Rouleau stressed at the outset that the board had not taken any formal action with respect to the requested ordinance, though members have been cautiously supportive of the concept.
“The decision hasn’t been made,” he said, setting the stage for a back-and-forth that never quite got nasty despite the starkly different perspectives held by those in attendance.
The club’s members depicted the proposed ordinance as a way to accommodate wholesome family fun by linking Williamstown with trails in neighboring Washington, Orange, Topsham and beyond. Traffic, they said, would flow both ways — a boon for some Williamstown businesses. They spoke of trails that would be well-maintained and rigorously policed, and suggested seasonal use by ATVs would be innocuous.
Those rosy assertions were challenged by residents who complained they only recently learned of the proposal, hadn’t been fully briefed on the ordinance, or had an opportunity to review the map that shows which portions of the roads might be opened for ATV use.
Some were more skeptical than others and several feared the idea could quickly devolve into neighborhood nuisances, or worse.
Boyce Road resident Shaun Boyce said many of the people he’d spoken with were just getting up to speed. Many, he said, own ATVs, but worried that opening portions of some Class 3 and 4 roads for their use could lead to an increase in roadside litter, traffic and noise.
“They understand ATV riders, they just don’t want to see more traffic on the roads that they live on,” Boyce said.
Washington Road resident Suzanne LaFleche was one of them. LaFleche said she moved to the “edge of town” 30 years ago for a reason that she feared was suddenly in jeopardy.
“I see this as taking away peace and quiet.” LaFleche said. “You can’t get that back.”
Boyce Road resident Richard Flies agreed.
“This is a quality of life issue for many Williamstown residents,” Flies said, urging the board to seriously ponder what it was being asked to do.
“Is this something you really want to do to this town?” he asked.
The answer for many — including at least a couple who don’t live in Williamstown — was “yes.”
“This is a good activity,” Rood Pond Road resident Duncan Cone said, pointing to what he described as success stories in some nearby communities and urging the board to act on the ordinance.
Lindsey Contois was among the more vocal proponents of the ordinance. She said it could be properly enforced and believed it would be beneficial to the town.
“The community is going to be closer for this,” she said, despite the deep divide among those in the room at the time.
Garden Street resident Luanna Putney pushed back at what she perceived was the negative way ATV owners were being portrayed.
“Everybody’s making it sound like everybody who has an ATV (are) nothing but hoodlums and thugs and alcoholics,” Putney said. “You can laugh, but look at these men and women. These are hardworking men and women who paid thousands of dollars for four-wheelers and ATVs.
“These are our neighbors,” she added. “These are our friends.”
On that Putney and Washington Road resident Victoria Heft agreed.
However, Heft who recounted living in Danville when a similar ordinance was passed several years ago, leading to a large increase in out-of-state traffic, incessant noise no one anticipated, a problem with trash, privacy issues, concerns about speeding and congestion.
“Everybody got ripping mad at each other,” she said. “Neighbors were furious at neighbors. Everybody was mad at the Select Board and the town got all worked up and finally they decided ‘We don’t want to deal with this anymore. This is not benefiting us.’”
The solution in Danville — one Heft asked the board to consider — involved limiting ATV use of local roads to town residents and those who own property in the community.
“I think there would be a different discussion happening here if you guys were saying: ‘We want just the club to be able to ride on all these roads,’” she said. “You guys are our neighbors. That would make a big difference.”
Danny Hale, executive director of the Vermont ATV Sportsman’s Association, acknowledged Danville wasn’t “a perfect situation,” but said the problems there weren’t resolved by adopting an ordinance that barred VASA from using its resources to manage the trail network and invest in enforcement.
“It’s not better there now, it’s worse there now,” he said. “They’re going backwards by the day in Danville.”
Hale urged the Williamstown board not to embrace a plan that would leverage VASA’s resources and provide crucial management where none now exists.
“This is not going to go away if you say ‘no,’” he said. “The same thing is going to occur. All of these people own ATVs, they’re going to ride them so why don’t we put some management parameters around it?”
Dorothy Milne, of Lotus Lake Camp, said she was troubled that Winchester Hill Road was included on the list. The Class 4 road bisects the Lotus Lake property and is regularly used by campers and staff on foot and on horseback.
“The concerns for us are very much about safety of our children and our animals going up and down that road,” she said, prompting some to suggest they shouldn’t be in the road in the first place.
Rama Schneider said at the start he was “skeptical” but “convince-able,” while acknowledging he would feel far more comfortable if the board test drove the ATV ordinance to see how it worked.
He, and others, expressed optimism a “middle ground” could be be reached, but said Heft’s concern about an influx of ATV enthusiasts from out of town and out of state was worthy of consideration.
“We’re talking about something that goes way beyond Williamstown,” he said. “We’re inviting in the world.”
Not yet, though that was a source of frustration for the club’s president, Travis Pierce, who headed into the meeting expecting he’d leave with an answer instead of a request he designate members to serve on a committee.
“Can you just give us a chance?” Pierce asked. “Let us prove to you that we’re not bad people.”
No one suggested they were, but when it was clear the board wasn’t ready to adopt the ordinance, Pierce asked for an explanation.
“Wasn’t that the whole point of this meeting … so you guys could hear from the people?” he asked.
“What we’ve heard is they need to hear more,” Rouleau replied.
The board appointed Covey and Wade to serve on the committee and agreed to recruit members from both sides to work on what some suggested could be an abbreviated list of roads and maybe a different schedule than the 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. reflected in the proposed ordinance.