Editorial: Selectboard pumps brakes in Hartford

Clare Forseth, of White River Junction, Vt., carries an ornamental grass to her car after digging it up from a garden she maintains because it had grown too tall and was blocking the sign at the Wilder Park and Ride in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. Forseth, who has been retired for 20 years, keeps herself busy by caring for gardens around town, both through the Hartford Garden Friends and on her own. She knows that when she starts caring for a new plot she has to commit to maintaining it.

Clare Forseth, of White River Junction, Vt., carries an ornamental grass to her car after digging it up from a garden she maintains because it had grown too tall and was blocking the sign at the Wilder Park and Ride in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. Forseth, who has been retired for 20 years, keeps herself busy by caring for gardens around town, both through the Hartford Garden Friends and on her own. She knows that when she starts caring for a new plot she has to commit to maintaining it. "'The more you do, the more you have to do,' my mother always said." (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Published: 06-12-2023 10:17 AM

The Hartford Selectboard is to be commended for refusing to be stampeded by neighborhood complaints into closing — even on a temporary basis — the Wilder park-and-ride lot, which is a substantial community asset. There are better ways to address the neighbors’ concerns, and we urge the board to adopt a long-term strategy to do so.

Acting Town Manager Gail Ostrout told the board at its May 30 meeting that town staff members had fielded “hundreds of phone calls” about the lot “from multiple residents” who feared for their safety.

It is unclear to us whether she meant that to be taken literally or hyperbolically, but let’s stipulate that there are lots of calls from both neighbors and passers-by regarding activity at the town-owned park-and-ride lot, which is on Hartford Avenue, a half mile from the nearest Interstate 91 exit.

Important context was provided by Police Chief Gregory Sheldon, who said his officers responded to calls there 47 times between last July and April 2023 — which by our count is a little more than once a week — and that upon investigation most of the reported violations proved to be unfounded.

Those that were substantiated involved such things as littering, illegal dumping, camping in vehicles, public urination, drug use and loitering — in short, the sort of public nuisance that unfortunately can also be encountered elsewhere in Hartford and in the greater Upper Valley.

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In fact, according to Sheldon’s numbers, serious crime is vanishingly rare in that area, and what does exist is non-violent. Nor, he said, would he characterize the parking lot as an “open-air drug market.” Of course, none of that information constitutes an ongoing guarantee of public safety, but it is an important tool with which to assess relative risk.

Board member Mary Erdei concluded that the park-and-ride is generally being used for its intended purpose. Indeed, Advance Transit and several car poolers supplied credible testimony to that effect. And board member Lannie Collins got it right when he commented that “we should base our decisions on data more so than on emotion.”

All too often these days in America, small, highly vocal minorities are driving public policy in their own direction.

So the lot remains open. But, as the board member known as Rocket pointed out, to some extent perception is reality when it comes to the neighbors feeling unsafe. Certainly fear of crime, stoked by social media and conservative news outlets, is prevalent throughout American society these days, despite the different story told by statistics such as those Sheldon cited. Certainly the hair-trigger response to that fear has produced much tragedy and cannot be ignored.

But the board’s ideas for what to do about the problem seemed confined to such measures as installing video surveillance equipment or upgrading lighting. We believe that the very next item on the board’s agenda for that evening affords a greater opportunity for a more comprehensive solution.

That was a memo from the Vermont Department for Children and Families soliciting letters of interest from communities and organizations for money to address the homelessness crisis that is being exacerbated by the failure of the Legislature and the Scott administration to figure out an alternative to the federally funded pandemic-era program that housed people in motels, which is now ending.

It seems clear to us that one likely subtext of the Hartford Avenue neighbors’ park-and-ride complaints is their continuing vexation with the town’s homeless population. To whatever extent their concerns do arise from that discomfort, then town government could and should address the underlying problem by, for example, throwing its support behind the establishment of an emergency shelter such as the Haven is seeking to open in Hartford; stepping up outreach efforts to offer treatment and counseling to drug users; and perhaps more prosaically by making it easier and cheaper for people to responsibly dispose of unwanted goods.

The Selectboard authorized town staff to submit a letter of interest for the state money that is now available. It could be profitably used to make long-term efforts of mutual benefit to both the Hartford Avenue neighbors and the homeless.