GUILFORD — Fighting back tears at the end of a contentious discussion about the Select Board having fired the entire Planning Commission, its former chairwoman told her fellow former commissioners that they’re “all beautiful.”
“And I look forward to seeing each and every one of you at some point in our journey along the way after all of this,” Michelle Frehsee said at the Select Board meeting Monday.
Select Board Chairman Richard Wizansky started the conversation by saying the board sincerely thanks the former commission for its work in putting together the proposed town plan. He also acknowledged the stress caused in the community by the board’s recent decision to disband the commission.
Wizansky said the commission is responsible for drafting the town plan; the latest update was due in early 2020, but the commission didn’t approve a plan to propose to the board until just last month. He noted records indicate the commission had five meetings last year and six this year.
“It is the Select Board’s observation that an inability to work toward consensus and substantial amounts of tension made it difficult to conduct meetings and make decisions,” he said. “Communication has been difficult due to a lack of email or remote meeting capabilities. Alternate means of communicating were not developed.”
Wizansky said the board will discuss, at its next meeting, measures to ensure similar issues don’t occur.
Board member Zon Eastes said before the proposed plan is adopted, the new commission will need to hold a hearing, then the board will need to hold one. The last plan was adopted in 2015.
“The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020, complicating all of our lives,” Eastes said. “The Guilford Select Board and its commissions necessarily had to adapt in order to continue working.”
Eastes said an executive order, after Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency, allowed a grace period for the town plan to be adopted: Guilford had until Sept. 15 to get it through.
Now, the board anticipates the proposed plan could be adopted sometime between March and May. Eastes said the board, in appointing a new commission, will consider the values of the town, the number of commissioners it wants and timeline for appointments.
Some of the values, he said, include “respect for all Guilford citizens; a diverse representation including age, gender, livelihood; a balance of voices supporting openness and fairness among all; and trust in consensus and community building.”
In December, the board plans to interview all candidates and appoint a commission. In January, the new commission is anticipated to hold its first meeting. Eastes said after the public hearings, the Windham Regional Commission will need to give final approval.
Board Vice Chairwoman Verandah Porche said the board isn’t criticizing the content nor the quality of the proposed plan.
“We are all volunteers here working for the wellbeing of the town we share,” she said. “The Select Board action was not taken lightly. It was guided by state statute. This is not about exercising power. This is in no way personal.”
Frehsee said the document came in late, but that didn’t warrant the action taken by the board.
“We’ve tackled a lot of big issues in the last year,” she said. “We were ready to send it to town forum in March 2020, and it would have been done by June 22. Because of COVID, we couldn’t hold a town forum, and things changed.”
Jackie Gaines, who also served on the commission when it was disbanded, said she feels like the commission was attacked and didn’t get communication the board received about the process. She described how the commission considered every sentence in the plan and struggled with technology during the pandemic.
“It might have appeared we were extremely argumentative,” she said. “I’m going to call it more hometown, Guilford-style, colorful discussion when we didn’t agree. We had such a diverse group there. We had a lot of discussion, and it took a lot of time.”
Gaines added, “We actually loved each other for the most part.” She urged the board to hold a community forum “to clear the air.”
Maggie Foley of Guilford said the way things unfolded will discourage younger generations from getting involved at a time when the community struggles to find volunteers. Other community members also criticized the move.
“You could have disbanded us when [the plan] was adopted,” Frehsee told the board, adding that new commissioners can’t be expected to defend a document the former commissioners drafted. “Who is going to refute what we wrote without knowing part of the background?”
Wizansky said the board stands by its decision. Eastes noted it’s possible former commissioners will be appointed to the new commission.
At one point, Christina Belogour questioned Frehsee about why concerns haven't also raised about other wealthy landowners and large land parcel owners or multigenerational farm owners. Belogour's husband Paul owns Viking Farms LLC in Guilford and other land in town as well as Vermont News & Media, which includes the Reformer, Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and UpCountry Magazine.
“I did say at a Select Board meeting, because of things with Paul, we do need to look at things in the land use section,” Frehsee said.
Wizansky later closed the discussion by saying the upcoming hearings will offer an opportunity for the community to discuss “where the town is and where it wants to be.”
“That’s what the purpose of the plan is,” he said.