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Column: Newbury residents must reject proposed juvenile detention center

For the Valley News
Published: 10/15/2021 10:10:01 PM
Modified: 10/15/2021 10:10:11 PM

The state of Vermont has screwed up — big time. The Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex was mismanaged by the Department for Children and Families for years. It was closed last fall not only because it was outdated and underused, but also because of staff turnover, lawsuits, allegations of abuse and assaults by staff, and even allegations of assaults of staff by adjudicated teens. The Vermont Legislature screwed up by spending years discussing the problems and failing to fix them or find an alternative — no “Plan B.”

This has created a sense of urgency in Montpelier to open a new, right-sized detention center with a more therapeutic approach and less of a corrections look and feel. A laudable goal in the right setting.

For some reason, the state decided to work with an out-of-state provider, the Orford, N.H.-based Becket Family of Services, and its subsidiary, the Vermont Permanency Initiative. A plan was hatched to open a Woodside replacement, the Covered Bridge Treatment Center, in a remote part of Newbury, Vt., on a tiny Class 4 dirt road off a very quiet dirt road in an area zoned as a conservation district.

Newbury is a very rural town with no local law enforcement, and no access to the sort of support services needed to detain and treat dangerous youth offenders — not the right setting

The plan — to gut and radically renovate a former bed and breakfast to create a maximum security facility to house up to six boys between 11 and 17 years old — would create one of the largest employment centers in town, with up to 43 employees. It would increase traffic on a quiet dirt road by at least tenfold. It calls for 20 to 30 times as much outdoor lighting as most single-family homes emit, creating a bright eyesore, high up on a hillside, visible from a wide area to the east. It is clearly not allowed under existing conservation district zoning, and is entirely out of keeping with the intent and letter of the Newbury Town Plan. Lawyers representing the Vermont Permanency Initiative are claiming it should be treated as a single-family home and should be exempt from many aspects of local zoning. I cry “foul.”

None of this is the fault of the town of Newbury, nor of Newbury residents, who were largely unaware of all the chaos in Essex and Montpelier. Yet here we are, under active attack from our own state government, and having to scramble to defend ourselves (“Detention center has vehement opposition,” Oct. 3). Three information sessions were held back in February by Zoom, but some residents still have no idea what’s being hotly debated through Act 250 and the local zoning process.

The residents would be teens who have already committed violent crimes, or who have been deemed too dangerous — to themselves or others — to be housed anywhere else in Vermont. The chances of a staff assault or other dangerous incident are virtually certain. Given our lack of local law enforcement, when a serious incident does occur, the safety of our first responders, the staff inside the facility and other youth housed there, could not be assured until state troopers arrive to secure the situation. Vermont State Police response time could be anywhere from 5 minutes to almost an hour. What happens while everyone is waiting? How far can a highly motivated escapee travel in 45-60 minutes?

In response to safety and security concerns, the Department for Children and Families has offered to enhance our police coverage by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont State Police. Becket/Vermont Permanency Initiative officials made a similar offer, and released a plan to employ a private security firm to appease neighbors and tilt the scales in their favor, just a few hours before the recent Newbury Development Review Board hearing.

I take the offer of enhanced security as an admission that the proposed facility would create an undue security burden on the town and would cause undue harm to its residents. Also, the involvement of a private security company raises a boatload of pragmatic and legal issues, but again, it confirms the fears of area residents that the proposed plan creates a number of safety issues for everyone involved, especially our first responders.

It is no accident that the town of Newbury has no police department and limited coverage by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. We have chosen a level of police coverage that works best for our small population, our low crime rate and the quality of life we have worked to create here. If we want more police coverage — and surveillance — there’s an accepted process to make that decision. We would petition the Selectboard to put the question before the voters at Town Meeting, where we would decide what works best for us.

I write to remind everyone involved that the town of Newbury was chartered in 1763; that’s 14 years before the Vermont Constitution, and 28 years before the Republic of Vermont became a state. Newbury was here before the state of Vermont, and before the United States of America. Our town is managed by capable and intelligent people. After 258 years of practice we’re actually getting pretty good at managing our own affairs.

We do not need to let the state’s mismanagement and poor planning lay an undue burden in our lap. We do not have to roll over and play dead. The state’s involvement does not entitle the applicant to special treatment. We do not have to accept inappropriate and unfair spot zoning. We have every right to say “no.”

We need to stand tall and stand together and reject this plan outright, without conditions.

Brad Vietje is Newbury’s town moderator. The Development Review Board will continue its hearing on Oct. 21, at 6 p.m., at the Newbury Elementary School and via Zoom. The board asks that community members file written comments by Oct. 18.

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