ROCKINGHAM — The Select Board adopted an interim zoning bylaw amendment for public facilities throughout town and that would make public facilities a conditional use in the Riverfront 14 zoning district.
This bylaw amendment stemmed from a verified voter petition that was formed this winter by Rockingham for Progress, a local group that seeks to preserve historic buildings and keep detention centers out of town. The petition was formed by RFP when Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark had proposed to build a multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility in town. The sheriff has since withdrawn his proposal, citing the work and cost involved in renovating the site.
At the April 5 Select Board meeting, attendees urged the board to accept the amendment.
"I feel that the will of the people have spoke very loud and clear and future possibilities of having this detention center come back to us again would exhaust the populous," said Suzanne Groenewold of Bellows Falls who co-led Voices of Rockingham, a group that opposed the proposed detention center. "I think we have come together as one unit of voices who really fell strongly about this community and are looking very forward to positive growth. That includes things that will develop jobs and will bring economic development to this area; it is not making money on incarcerating prisoners, so I would urge you also adopt these bylaw changes tonight on an interim basis."
The meeting attendees applauded her.
However, Select Board member Peter Golec noted, because Bellows Falls does not have a Town Plan complete, under state statue this process may be silent until a Town Plan has been adopted. Some meeting attendees expressed their disappointment with this matter.
"I'm very disturbed by the people who did not get the town plan done," said Deborah Wright of Bellows Falls. "What does it take for town hall to get those done in a timely matter so we don't lose the Island or have difficulty?"
At the April 5 meeting the Select Board could either take no action or enact the amendment as an immediate temporary bylaw change that would go until the May 17 vote. The board had voted at a special meeting on March 11 to put the bylaw change to an Australian Ballot vote, and on April 5 board members adopted the interim amendment as presented.
The petition, which received the required amount of signatures, asked that definition be changed to "any facility in which more than eighteen (18) people are incarcerated or held for short-term psychological evaluation at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven (7) or more consecutive days or held for short-term psychological evaluation for thirty (30) or more consecutive days."
• Local resident Andrew Smith stood up and asked for an update on the sidewalk construction as he feels it has been neglected. He stated that two or three years ago an overview of the sidewalk conditions was conducted in Bellows Falls Village. Smith suggested that members of the board review this report, walk around, and possibly get in a wheelchair and put this issue on a future agenda for discussion.
"Maybe even put one of you in a wheelchair just for a half hour to an hour to experience what those sidewalks are like for people that have no other means of getting around," said Smith.
Town Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns reported that the last survey of the sidewalks had been done in 2014. He also mentioned that there is $20,000 in the present budget for sidewalks in Bellows Falls and $10,000 for sidewalks in Saxtons River. Some other members the board and public chimed in at the meeting and noted the poor conditions of the sidewalks in their town and throughout the state.
• The Select Board rejected a bid for the Bridge Street bridge project and transferred $55,000 from the Averill's Bridge project to the Capital Fund to be used as the 20 percent match for the Bridge Street project.
"The whole scope of the project has been reduced down to what is was originally requested to be done in 2008, a mill fill and rebuild of the sidewalk," said Stearns.
The estimated cost for the project is $272,000 ($252,000 of that is covered by a state grant), according to Stearns. He said $22,000 is the direct cost the town needs to pick up, which is why he requested they transfer said amount. The motion carried to transfer the $55,000 from the Averill Bridge project to the Capital Fund.
• Construction for handicap access to town hall began Monday, April 4. The Highway Department made temporary access for Tuesday's meeting, but all Select Board and Trustee meetings will be held at the Recreation Center until the project is complete.
• A motion to pass a Social Media Policy as presented did not pass. The policy would have covered both town employees and elected officials and, according to Stearns, the proposed policy was first written in 2010 by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to address the continuing use of social media sites.
Some Select Board members felt the policy was insulting, while others said there was too much gray area because if three elected members comment on the same string of comments online regarding a town matter, they have held "a virtual meeting." Stearns noted that the town and its various departments have six Facebook pages, such as the Bellows Falls Village Police Department page where people often turn to for press releases.
• The Board approved the PACE program and according to Stearns, Safe Routes to School Sidewalk is scheduled to start June 8 when school lets out for the summer and will be complete by June 30.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275