Special election planned for November
By Jason Starr
Williston will be one of the leaders in Chittenden County spearheading a new governmental entity whose sole role will be working to connect every home in the area with high-speed internet service.
While most of the homes and businesses in town already enjoy high-speed service, there are pockets that can’t currently connect — totaling roughly 130 homes, according to Town Manager Erik Wells. Other Chittenden County towns have similar coverage gaps.
The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission and the Vermont Community Broadband Board are urging municipalities to band together — as they have done in several instances in more rural parts of Vermont — and form a “communications union district” (CUD) to achieve a critical mass of unserved homes that will attract available grant funds and ultimately a service provider.
“Forming a CUD is the current best approach to access federal funding through the Vermont Community Broadband Board to assist with this work,” Town Manager Erik Wells said.
The selectboard last week endorsed the idea of holding a special election to coincide with the Nov. 8 general election to ask for voter approval to join other municipalities in the formation of a Chittenden County Communications Union District. At least two municipalities in the county will have to vote yes in order for the CUD to form, according to Rob Fish of the Community Broadband Board.
The Town of Essex and City of South Burlington are also planning to hold votes in November, Fish said. All three municipalities are finalizing their ballot wording and plan to hold selectboard meetings next week to officially set their November special elections.
If Williston does not vote to be part of the formation of the CUD this year, it could decide, through selectboard vote, to join at a future date — assuming at least two municipalities do vote to launch the CUD this November.
Being involved from the beginning has its advantages, Fish said.
“The founding members have a little more say crafting bylaws and in initial decisions,” he said. “It’s a vote of confidence, an announcement to both your residents and (broadband) providers that you are on board and that your residents need service. But if you join later, you’re certainly still going to be welcome.”
The Vermont Community Broadband Board has already begun handing out federal funds to communication districts throughout the state. In its latest round of grants announced last week, $48 million went to four communication districts in the Northeast Kingdom, central Vermont and southern Vermont. The board has distributed $100 million since its formation through Act 71 a year ago.
“Getting Vermonters connected to future-proof fiber technology will ensure that all Vermonters can have equal access to educational, energy, health and remote work opportunities,” said Vermont Community Broadband Board Executive Director Christine Hallquist. “There has never been such an equalizing force that touches on so many issues impacting rural Vermonters.”