Trees & Roads Redux

Here we go again.  

I’ll get to the details of the Trees & Roads debate in a minute, but first I want to say, I hear you — again.  I also want to be honest in sharing my exasperation about the way Northfield does business.  And I’m not talking about trees or even our current Select Board.

Our problem is governance.  

If I’m sounding a little jaded, it’s because I am. Northfield seems to spend most of its time lighting fires then putting them out instead of taking care of business.  It’s a huge waste of time and a whole lot of heartache.  And it seems to happen every single year.  Here’s a quick list for the last three years:

  • 2014: Rezoning for the Green Mountain Family Practice health care facility
  • 2015:  Proposed firing of then Police Chief Jim Dziobek
  • 2016:  Tree removal contract with Limlaw

In each case, there was something not quite right with the way decisions were made, and each issue certainly deserved public attention.  Indeed, I received a phone call in 2015 about the police chief issue even though I didn’t hold a public office at that time.  I politely declined when asked to show up at a Board meeting to protest the decision.

My response was, “This happens all the time in Northfield.  If you want to do something about it, run for Select Board.”

It’s something I’ve been saying for quite a long time now, but there haven’t been many takers.  The result:  Northfield elects a board then protests against it.

This isn’t how a healthy town self-governs.  In a healthy community dissent transforms into leadership.  People who invest time and motivate others should eventually realize they can be more effective by making decisions instead of fighting them.

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Seriously.  If Lillian Kaushtupper on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can go from protester to public official, you certainly can.  The Trees & Roads issue is important to you.  I get it.  There’s an answer.  Be Like Lilllian!  Run for office.  Be a decider.  You get it, right?  (If you don’t have Netflix, here’s a taste of Lillian.)

Back to the current issue:  Trees & Roads.

I want to thank everyone who’s participated in the public discussion, particularly those who took time to show up at Select Board meetings.  As you may recall, I wrote about the issue last June (here and here).  There’s no need to rehash last year’s debate since the issue has taken a different turn.

The question now on the table is about a request to engage in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the State to create a roadside vegetation inventory.  At least, that’s what I thought we were talking about….

Communication Breakdown?

But it sounds like the MOU wasn’t fully explained — or that it’s now being described in a different, much more specific way.   Susan Stillinger, in a recent Front Porch Forum post, writes:

Northfield was offered the chance to be one of ten communities in the Lake Champlain Basin to receive a Rural Road Vegetation Management Assessment as part of the US Forest Service’s Resilient Right-of-Way Project.

This is the first I’ve heard of such details.  Thanks for the update, Susan — seriously, thank you.

The Resilient Right-of-Way Project sounds great — but there has been no reference to it in any communication I’ve received as a member of the Select Board.  All I’ve seen is a MOU which was presented to the Board sometime in April.  It wasn’t described in connection with a particular program.  It was described as “experts who are willing to give us their time.”  Or something like that.

My understanding is that some folks in town talked to people they knew in Montpelier, who together came up with an idea to conduct a roadside vegetation inventory.  It was described as an exciting pilot project.  Perhaps the idea hadn’t yet coalesced into a Resilient RoW Project at that time — but if it had, it wasn’t described in detail.

It still sounds great.  But there seems to be a communication breakdown.  I feel a little out of the loop.  As a member of the Board, I lack detailed information about what’s being proposed on a grassroots level, and I’m not entirely sure who the players are.  And it’s not because I haven’t been paying attention.

[Correction:  The document was presented and discussed at an April Select Board meeting with no vote or action taken.  I advocated for the agreement but failed to convince my colleagues to move forward with it.]

Cart Before the Horse Process

Frankly, it’s embarrassing to know that Northfield probably looks dysfunctional to our State agency partners in Montpelier.  The idea was formulated on a grassroots level, brought to the State, and then rejected by the local Select Board.  A better process might have been for the grassroots effort to *start* with the Select Board — then go to the State.

Why didn’t anyone approach the Board before bringing it to the State?  My guess is that the organizer(s) may have felt like the idea would fail before it got started.  Indeed, that’s probably what would have happened.  I would have likely supported the idea and my colleagues would have likely seen things differently.  That’s just how democracy works.

But by going around the Select Board, another needless fire is starting to rage.  And this time our partners in Montpelier are watching.  They’re not going to be impressed with Northfield, that’s for sure.  We’ve wasted their time.  And this time, I have to say, it’s not the Select Board’s fault.  As a member of the Board who supports the cause, I honestly feel a little side-struck.  Out of the loop.  Exasperated.

What’s Happening Now

So here’s the good news.  The Town Manager recently applied for a Better Back Roads grant.  Here’s an excerpt from the Town Manager’s report from April 22nd.

I have applied for a VAOT Better Back Roads Grant to perform a road erosion assessment of gravel and paved roads and site assessments to help identify and  fix road erosion issues near surface water areas.  The purpose of applying for the grant is to prepare for and address the ACT 64 municipal storm-water permit process.  The Town has a good chance of obtaining the grant as the State is being pushed by the Feds to clean the waters of Vermont under the Clean Waters Act.    If awarded, the funding will assist the Town in identifying and addressing areas of potential erosion along water ways –  a main issue raised by residents.

At the last Select Board meeting (May 23rd) the Town Manager reported that Northfield has been awarded the Better Back Roads grant.  Here’s the follow-up.

The Town has received an $8,000 Better Back Roads grant to perform an inventory of road related erosion and /culvert problem areas.   The timing of this award is important as it will help the Town prepare for the required Municipal Roads General permit process that municipalities will face in 2018.  In addition, it will serve useful in the Town’s on-going  tree removal process as it will document and delineate sensitives areas along roadways.

The bottom line to the question regarding the Select Board’s decision to not pursue the Resilient Right-of-Way Project:

I can’t speak for other members of the Board who may have had other reasons to not follow the grassroots’ lead.  But for me, the bottom line is that we’re now moving forward.  The Better Back Roads grant will focus on erosion control and help our Town Forester make recommendations on roadside tree removal.

The irony here is that the Town Manager took the lead and is working hard to put out the fire on the Trees & Roads issue.  Usually it’s the public who steps up to put out the fire.  If you see Jeff Schulz, feel free to ask him about the process and maybe say, “Hey, thanks!”

What’s Next?

Now it’s your turn.  Start gathering signatures for a petition to — Run for office.  Northfield needs to stop electing a Board only to protest against it.  The problem is systemic.  It’s just one issue after the next.  There are lots of reasons to *not* run for Select Board — but there’s no reason to expect change if we keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.  It’s not difficult to imagine Northfield’s future controversies.  In fact, here’s my prediction:

  • 2018:  Conflict between the Select Board and the Northfield Conservation Commission regarding the Town Plan.  This one is completely predictable.
  • 2019:  Angst over the mass retirement of executive level officers at Norwich University, followed by a last minute rush to try to finally develop consistent, positive relations with the Town’s largest employer after spending decades talking about it.
  • 2020:  Still wondering why Northfield’s economy remains stagnant even though the simple solution would have been to hire an Economic Development Director in 2017.    Please note — this is what I’ll be recommending this year.

Final Thought

Did I mention something about running for office?

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Author: Nate Freeman

-- DIrector of Strategic Partnerships Northfield Community Development Network (NCDN) -- Selectboard Member, 3-year term -- Member, Economic Development Committee -- Member, School Improvement Team at the Northfield Middle/High School -- Member, Northfield Teen Center Advisory Committee

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