WILLIAMSTOWN — Rama Schneider has a new assignment, and it might make quarterbacking the committee that brokered the voter-approved merger of school districts in Williamstown and nearby Northfield look like a cake walk.
During its Monday night meeting, the Select Board unanimously appointed Schneider to serve as chairman of a reconfigured committee that will try yet again to develop a proposal that could open some town roads up for use by all-terrain vehicles.
Some, like Schneider, have characterized the effort as a quest for compromise while others — on both sides of the divisive issue — have equated it to hunting for unicorns. Those who hold the latter view have been right thus far because heading into Monday night’s meeting the debate over an ill-defined ATV ordinance had, for the most part, been a wheel-spinning waste of time.
Bogged down by controversy, confusion, frustration and a fair amount of finger-pointing an earlier version of the committee was on the verge of disbanding after three meetings.
The former school board member who served as chairman of the committee that proposed what is now the Paine Mountain School District, Schneider offered to try to help the committee work through what he acknowledged were deep differences of opinion.
“This is a touch subject. There’s no doubt about it,” Schneider said in what may have been the understatement of the evening.
“There’s a lot of angst and obviously a lot of disagreement,” he added during a very long discussion that revolved around whether it was worth getting the committee back on track.
It was a discussion during which one of the ATV enthusiasts who serves on the committee openly talked about collecting the signatures needed to force a town-wide vote on his fledgling club’s still-evolving request even as resident Richard Flies wondered how the idea survived the summer.
“I can’t figure out how this even got to this point,” said Flies, who expressed little interest in finding middle ground with a “social club … that wants to develop a recreational activity on our back roads” in order to legally get from here to there.
“They have everything gain and nothing to lose,” he said. “As a homeowner on one of these proposed roads we have everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Flies cited studies that show property values along ATV trails in New Hampshire and Maine dropped as much as 20 percent due to impacts associated with that extra traffic.
Chairman Matthew Rouleau said he had hoped the initial committee would take a deeper dive into those and other issues before coming back to the Select Board with a recommendation. That, didn’t happen.
“It’s hard to believe that my intention when creating this committee was so it wouldn’t land in our lap and it’s been no other place but in our lap since we started,” he said.
Rouleau said he remained optimistic that a committee composed of those on both sides of the issue could come to some agreement with clearer direction and an agreed upon structure.
Many of the nearly 50 residents who attended the meeting said the committee’s structure should not include any Select Board members. Two – Francis Covey and Chris Wade – served on the earlier committee and were blamed for the drama that caused it to stall.
That was the view of committee member Beth Allen, who said Wade’s performance at the committee’s final meeting was unacceptable and his continued service on the panel would make it difficult for her to return.
Following a turbulent first meeting the Allen said the committee seemed to have righted itself before Wade raised allegations of secret meetings designed to undermine the effort.
“We were on a roll, we were making progress, we were connecting with our neighbors and then we got accused unjustly of … wrecking the committee,” she said.
Covey said he would willingly relinquish his seat on the committee, that he acknowledged wasn’t functioning well.
“It was just headed down a bad road,” he said.
Schneider said he was confident a committee of eight residents – four on either side of the issue – led by a neutral chairperson capable of breaking ties on procedural issues could prepare a recommendation for the board. He said he was willing to serve as chairman if asked, but noted others in the community were more than capable.
Board members accepted Schneider’s offer and agreed his suggestion they shouldn’t be represented on the committee.
Four residents who expressed concern about the ATV proposal that was first floated in April were reappointed to the committee. They include Allen, Shaun Boyce, Richard Chalmers and Mike Martel. Proponents of the ATV plan – including three who served on the earlier committee – were also appointed. Those members are Travis Pierce, Gordon Pirie, Mike St. Lawrence, and Lloyd MacCormack.
Several residents stressed the need for transparency going forward. That was an issue for the earlier committee as requests for information were sometimes went unanswered, meeting minutes were unavailable and the initial proposal, which involved nearly 20 town roads, was never posted on the town’s website.
Rouleau said that proposal lacked significant detail and shouldn’t be viewed as the starting point for the new committee’s discussions.
Though the committee has been seated, several key questions remain unanswered – most notably the mechanism for approving whatever the committee comes up with.
Some expressed a preference for a board-adopted ordinance that could be swiftly suspended if it isn’t working as anticipated and others argued a town-wide vote was the preferred route given the importance of the issue and its potential impact on many residents.
Town Meeting Day was frequently mentioned as a logical date for a vote, but that would mean a committee that was told “not to rush” must wrap up its work by the end of the year. That work, several said, should include a renewed effort to work with private landowners to create as many off-road alternatives for the trail as possible.