By Kathy Gaffney
The recent public assertions by Selectman Nelson Brownell that Pownal, Vt., somehow requires yet more low-income housing is both befuddling and astounding.
The town of Pownal is currently home to approximately 10 -- many of them sizable -- mobile home parks, far surpassing the number extant within the vast majority of towns in the region. In addition, at least one-third of Pownal’s present population already reside in low-income housing as legally defined by the state of Vermont -- an overwhelmingly high percentage compared to other towns within the state.
So, while an argument might effectively be made that "gold" towns, such as Bennington County’s Dorset or locales such as Stowe or Woodstock, ought to seek to perhaps increase their offering of affordable housing, Pownal has with utmost certainty more than met the obligation of any municipality in providing such stock.
In fact, a petition to the town, circulated approximately five years ago and signed by many hundreds of registered voters within Pownal, requested the town cease from allowing, through Vermont state sanctioned moratorium, additional mobile home parks from becoming established within our borders with that very reasoning in mind.
Most importantly however, the residents living within a number of the presently existing mobile home parks here have attempted in vain for years to mitigate the myriad issues that chronically plague them, including dilapidated trailers; over-crowding; often non-potable drinking water and sewer problems; routine flooding due to particular parks being situated in designated floodplains; and ever increasing incidents of crime.
In fact, a Bennington Banner staff writer once compared specific Pownal mobile home park conditions to the deplorable living conditions often encountered in third world countries. And several years back, when Green Mountain Mobile Home Park was being eyed as a potential purchase by an agency within Vermont State so the park’s badly degraded infrastructure could be entirely reorganized and renovated, select board members effectively managed to dissuade the sale from taking place, which was inevitably what ultimately transpired.
As the appointed and salaried zoning enforcer of Pownal for well over a decade -- instead of this official addressing the plethora of problems adversely impacting the quality of life that current residents live amid under such sub-standard, and in many instances, illegal, sanitary and rental conditions, both within and outside the parameters of the mobile home parks -- this former select board chairman and current zoning administer is apparently merely advocating for yet more of this for this small town, as opposed to even attempting to grapple with the ever-present issues at hand.
In fact, with criteria long ago met and far surpassed under Vermont state requirements to provide for affordable housing, yet with Pownal continuing to not be in compliance with requisite minimum health & safety statutes/bylaws, what the town of Pownal obviously instead needs is an infusion of more high-end and particularly second-home housing that will invigorate the tax base and reduce the present high tax burdens faced by most homeowners.
As is widely understood, second homeowners pay the highest tax rates to both their individual towns and the state than do primary homeowners, yet utilize little to no services in return. Expansive and expensive homes absolutely do not in and of themselves increase taxes for a town as is sometimes mistakenly propagated, but rather traditionally decrease the tax burden on the rest of us due to these homeowners’ making what is essentially a much higher contribution to the aforementioned tax base, from a taxation standpoint.
Conversely, because mobile homes historically tend to unfortunately decrease in value over time, the assessed property values, and therefore the amount contributed via taxes by those particular homeowners to the tax base, also decrease, thereby forcing any shortfall to be made up by the remaining taxpayers in town. So while our current housing stock ought certainly to be upgraded to suit the needs of our residents, building additional units is indubitably detrimental to the controlled growth of this rural town.
As far as Mr. Brownell’s myopic vision for a town not only bursting at the seams with a preponderance of low-income housing, but one being transformed into some countrified version of an inner-city, industrialized wasteland brimming with factories -- this also does not bode well for the rural lifestyle and environs so many presently treasure. Pownal not only possesses deep roots in both agriculture and farming, but demonstratively remains a town wherein such pursuits are still a mainstay.
The fact that the elected in Pownal continue to turn a blind eye to the sub-par living conditions of so many, seek to over-burden the general populous with more of the same, and continue to intentionally turn away opportunities for positive and attractive business growth within the designated village center(s) may just be the reasons why the "gateway to Vermont" in this otherwise lovely New England town affords all who enter the unmistakable impression of a town distressed, downtrodden and just plain down on its luck.
Kathy Gaffney is a Pownal resident and served on the town’s Planning Commission from 2004 to 2011.