January 17, 2019

Activists take up ‘Transition Town’ movement

Observer photo by Jason Starr
Brian Forrest, a member of Transition Town Williston and Sustainable Williston, has applied to be Williston’s first energy coordinator.

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Transition Town Williston has taken root in 2017, bringing together local environmentalists to further the goals of a renewable energy future and a more connected and resilient community.

About a dozen towns in Vermont have formed “Transition Town” groups, hooking onto an international movement that has a presence in roughly 40 countries.

Earlier this month, the Williston group held its first community event, a handmade holiday gift-making party that attracted about 50 people to the Kismet building in Blair Park (see related story and photos, page 4).

But the group’s founders are currently working on a more political front. They have taken out a petition with the town clerk and are looking for signatures from 5 percent of the electorate (about 470 people) to put an item on the ballot for Town Meeting Day. The ballot item, a non-binding resolution, follows a template circulated by the environmental non-profit, 350.org, to encourage Vermont towns to lend local support for the State of Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of sourcing 90 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.

The resolution also encourages that “the transition to renewable energy is fair and equitable for all residents, with no harm to low-income and marginalized people, or rural communities.”

“Erratic and extreme weather,” it continues, “demonstrates that climate change is one of the most urgent challenges facing our state.”

If the petition attracts enough signatures, the decision would rest with the Williston Selectboard whether to put the item on the Town Meeting Day ballot, according to Town Clerk Deb Beckett.

If the petition fails to attract enough signatures, or the selectboard decides against placing the item on the ballot, the group would still bring the resolution forward from the floor at Town Meeting, according to founding member Marcy Kass. Williston residents considered a similarly non-binding resolution at last year’s Town Meeting, one that focused on requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns.

Transition Town Williston shares many of the same members as Sustainable Williston, another grassroots group that meets regularly to promote sustainability and environmental causes.

“A sense of urgency is the underpinning of both groups,” Kass said. “We read the news and we are rooting for our legislators to do the right thing. Sometimes their intentions are good, but the way these big systems work, it takes a long time. The energizing principle of Transition Town is that we can get started right now, where we live. We can start to recalibrate toward a future that will be better for our children and grandchildren.”

Kass asked members of Sustainable Williston and other friends and acquaintances she’s built over three decades living in town in April about their interest in forming a transition town group. She had recently read a book on the subject by Ruah Swennerfeldt, who helped organize Transition Town Charlotte.

Kass invited Swennerfeldt to speak at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in May to kickoff the Williston group. There was enough of a turnout to get the group off the ground. Other Vermont towns where transition groups have formed include Jericho, Montpelier, Manchester, Brattleboro and Putney.

“Every town does it differently,” Kass said. “We are trying to figure out our niche. We are new and we are evolving.”

In Williston, people have participated for a variety of reasons, some for socialization and some to more pointedly press a renewable energy agenda.

“One of the things we’re learning is that any change that is meaningful doesn’t happen overnight,” Kass said. “I think we will get there faster if we remember that slow is fast. We want to engage the whole town, and if we don’t achieve our sustainability goals, at least we’re getting together and getting to know each other, so it’s a win-win. And the more diverse people who join us — different ages, different backgrounds — the better the experience is going to be.”

Transition Town’s next event is an afternoon of board games Jan. 28, 1-4 p.m. at the Kismet building in Blair Park.

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