April 17, 2008
By Tim Simard
Does Williston need a community center? Better bike paths? A reduction of its carbon footprint? More than 100 Williston residents gathered at Williston Central School over the weekend to answer some of these questions and discuss the direction in which they want to take the town.
"This is for the enhancement of the community," Tony Lamb, town moderator and event co-chairman, said on Friday. "More dialogue is a good thing. This kind of thing allows for direct participation in your community and it can be very powerful."
The community event, known as Williston Into the Next Generations (WING), was organized by a local steering committee in November. According to Lamb, the Friday and Saturday forum was created to give all residents an opportunity to speak on important town issues.
WING was a continuation of the Shelburne Farms and the University of Vermont's PLACE, or Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education, program, which helps residents connect to their community through geography and history. The program offered a series of classroom and outdoor presentations in Williston in the fall.
Delia Clark, the WING facilitator, said the event had two goals — to strengthen vitality and community support and ensure Williston's sustainability in the future.
She told those who attended this was a chance to identify and clarify a shared vision.
"What kind of community do you want to be today?" she asked. "What kind of community to do you want to be in the future?
Residents sought to answer those questions by breaking into nine small groups Friday evening and Saturday morning to discuss various local issues.
Group members had to reach a consensus on how to move forward on certain initiatives. For instance, citizens interested in getting a community center would have to take their cause to the Planning Commission and Development Review Board, said Lamb.
On Saturday, the smaller groups brought their findings to the entire WING contingent, which eventually decided to focus its attention on five items: community-gathering spaces, environmental initiatives, responsible government models, transportation needs and maintaining Williston's rural character.
Clark, director of the Center of Place-based Learning and Community Engagement, was pleased with the turnout and the accomplishments. She has also led Vision-to-Action forums, which are community discussions similar to WING, all over the United States and Eastern Europe.
"I was struck by how much people were invested in the heart and soul of their town," she said. "It seems like the rest of Vermont has their own need for Williston (in terms of shopping and industry). I think this gave a chance for locals to express their own needs and concerns."
WING kicked off Friday evening with a community potluck supper and preliminary discussions on how the event would work. There were presentations from UVM graduate students on the history of Williston and how it could influence into the future.
Gary Hawley, a resident who sits on the town's conservation board, said he hoped the topics for discussion could be solved in the near future. The event would ask tough questions of Williston's residents, he said.
"How do you keep the rural character of the town, but allow for continued growth? Questions like that," he said. "There's quite a bit of structure to (WING), although I'm not sure what's going to come out of it."
Lamb said there was discussion within his groups that Williston is made up of several unique and diverse parts and the town is the sum of all.
"There's always a lot of talk of keeping the village the center of this town's activity," he said. "It's really the symbol of the Williston experience."
Lamb said ideas were put forth to reach out more to residents in the parts of town that are sometimes forgotten, such as the large section of town south of Interstate 89.
"It's important to link all areas of Williston, in terms of transportation, and culturally and geographically as well," he said. "We hope to recognize different parts of town and to not homogenize them, but to celebrate them."
Judy Sassorossi, a Williston Selectboard member and WING co-chairwoman, said she was very pleased with the event.
"It was a wonderful, free flow of thought," she said. "Weaving that social fabric was nice."
Clark said she hopes to see residents work at the initiatives they talked about. She said some residents have already decided how they will proceed, either by presenting to various town boards or forming new citizen groups. Much of what was discussed will be written up and released to the public shortly, she said. The WING organizers also plan to have future follow-up meetings.
"I hope they have come up with some collective dreams that could become a reality," Clark said.
Clark said through current politics and the growing force of globalization, making a difference at the local level is more important now than ever.
"Pretty soon we're going to be hearing about the red state-blue state debate all over again," she said. "We're a deeply divided country right now. At the local level, you don't have the luxury of being divided. You have to transcend the divisive politics."