By Mara Brook, Editor
Concerns surrounding a scoping study that proposed placing the Town Link Trail along the Clemmons Family Farm property line were again raised by Lydia Clemmons and others at the May 24 Selectboard meeting.
Clemmons, who manages the Clemmons Family Farm for her parents, expressed concerns at a previous Selectboard meeting that placing the trail near the black-owned, historic 148-acre property could make the farm a target for racially motivated hate crimes.
Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow said language in the scoping study was revised following “concerns from some community members that the language was not accurately reflecting their intent and their concerns.”
Clemmons “was great enough to help participate” in editing the document, Krasnow said.
Selectboard Member Lewis Mudge said he was puzzled by the additional language in the document.
“Basically, we’re saying we recognized the Clemmons family’s concerns with regard to racism, [and] we’re crossing our fingers that in the next couple of years racism is going to get resolved and we can move forward,” Mudge said. “But we’re not going to sort out systemic racism in the next few years.”
Charlotte Trails Committee Chair Bill Regan said the language was provided by the Clemmons Family Farm.
“We were accepting it at face value and not proposing that we change it,” he said.
Clemmons explained the document’s original language proposed moving the trail away from the farm if racial tensions in the region failed to improve. In an attempt to “compromise” with the town and work within the original text, Clemmons said she shifted the emphasis, proposing the trail be placed far from the property until the threat of racism no longer exists.
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Clemmons said. “God, I wish things would get better, but I’m not going to assume that they will, and I’m not going to therefore map out a trail next to the only black owned farm in the town. I’m going to instead map away from that farm.”
Charlotte Trails Committee member Margaret Russell said she felt it was “important to state” that the trail was already being moved 740 feet away from the Clemmons’ property line.
“We are already doing that, so I guess I don’t know what it means to include that language in the scoping study,” she said.
After asking if she could “put my property owner hat on for one minute?” Russell said people were currently coming onto her property “from two different places on Lake Road, from the train station, and from Ferry Road” because “nobody knows where the easement is.”
Russell said she and her husband Mike “have some urgency to nail down the easement.”
Krasnow asked Russell if she was looking to change the location of an existing easement on her property. She said she was.
“The existing easement is along the Clemmons Family Farm,” Russell said. “Right now, the actual easement goes along their southern edge of their farm, and we are looking to move it to the south end of the property away from their farm.”
Clemmons said her family was not aware of an easement along their property line.
“It’s quite possible that a warning went out and my parents, who are elderly, didn’t notice it,” she said. “But we would love to know how that easement came to be in the first place.”
Margaret Russell said the current easement was created when a previous owner subdivided the land.
“When Mike and I bought this property 25 years ago we had to accept the easement as a condition of purchase,” she said. “So, it’s been on the books a long time.”
She added the Clemmons’ farm is “a big property” and the new easement is “a long way away from the property line.”
“I don’t consider 740 feet a long way away,” she said. “We don’t like that easement where it is right now, and we also don’t like that easement 740 feet away.”
Resident Paul Plante said a “simple solution” would be for the town to “relinquish their easement on the Russell property. Just give it up if you’re not going to use it.”
Mike Russell said although Plante’s suggestion “makes some sense,” that he and Margaret “believe in public trails.”
“We want to have people using our property in a way that’s controlled and safe and respectful for everybody who might be impacted by it,” he said. “We bought our property knowing there was going to be a public trail through it.”
Selectboard member Jim Faulkner said in light of the Russell’s request to move the easement, the couple needed to sit down with the trails committee and map out the new location “so the select board has something they can work with.”
Michael Russell said he would provide an updated version of the map to Town Administrator Dean Bloch “pronto.”
Krasnow asked Clemmons if she was satisfied with the new language in the document.
“Well, again, I was trying to reach a compromise,” Clemmons said. “If I were being an autocratic person, I would say the text should keep that public trail as far away from the Clemmons Family Farm boundaries as possible.”
Krasnow said he supported adding the more pointed language.
“I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have one sentence at the end to note there is a preference to have the trail located as far away as feasible,” he said. “I think that’s a reasonable sentence to include at the end of the compromise paragraph.”
Mudge said he found it “kind of strange” that the town was “putting Lydia in this position where she says she has to compromise.” He asked if the option to place the trail by the Clemmons’ farm could be removed from the study and instead include a recommendation to keep the trail “as far away as possible from the Clemmons Family Farm.”
Regan said the final recommendations in the study already included options for the trail “to go along Ferry Road and all the way along Lake Road, which is about as far away from the [Clemmons] property as you can get.”
Faulkner cautioned the Ferry Road to Lake Road option would involve “creating a sidewalk.”
“I think the idea is, we’re trying to make a nature-type trail,” Faulkner said. “And if we go down Ferry Road down to Lake Road, it’s basically just a sidewalk. Was that the intent of the trails committee?”
Clemmons said she thought the issue had less to do with where the town wanted to place a trail and more to do with where it wanted to place its priorities.
“The value of keeping trails off road and the value of enjoying the beautiful landscape of Charlotte needs to be balanced with, how much do we value this black-owned farm, this cultural heritage site and the only one we have in Charlotte?” she said. “How much does that weigh against this couple of miles of trail along the road?”
Clemmons said if the town were discussing “a wild species of plant or an animal” everyone would be “doing their best” to protect it.
“You have this rare black-owned farm that’s a historic farm for the community, serving marginalized underrepresented artists in Vermont and bringing community together across racial differences, which I think in these times is even more important than before,” she said. “If there were 20 black owned farms in Charlotte, maybe it would be a different discussion.”
Mudge said he thought the issue presented the town with an opportunity.
“If we all agree this is the least viable [option] then let’s make it the least viable,” he said. “Look what happened in Richford this month. We could be the town that decides right now that this is what the Clemmons family says and we’re going to go with it.”
Clemmons said, “as a side note,” she thought it would be “a wonderful gift to the community” for the farm to organize a program “where we invite our black artists to share some of their experiences.” She quickly added that the spirit of the program would not be one of hostility.
“If you know anything about the farm, everything we do is done with love and positivity,” she said. “We wouldn’t do a sharing where it’s all, ‘we hate white people.’ It would be sharing the story as a way to help you understand and to build empathy as a community.”
Clemmons noted there were “some horrible stories out there, a couple of artists have recently been in the local news, black women both of them, Kiah Morris and Celine Davis.”
Planning Commission member Bill Stuno said while he was “very sympathetic to Lydia’s situation,” he wanted to mention that “trail access to properties as a function of promoting crime or vandalism has not been supported by any studies.”
With four minutes left for the agenda item, Krasnow said a third public hearing would likely be necessary to further fine tune and approve a final document.
“Hopefully at the June 14 meeting, which is the next regularly scheduled Selectboard meeting,” Krasnow said.