Winter's cold chills ideas for the future (Times Argus)

By David Delcore

BARRE - Asked to share their vision for the Green Mountain State a generation from now many of the 40 central Vermonters who attended a Thursday night forum at the Old Labor Hall in Barre had a hard time seeing past this winter.

With the cost of home heating oil expected to hit record highs this winter, thinking long-term proved something of a problem for participants in the latest in a series of forums sponsored by the Council on the Future of Vermont.

Energy costs in general, and by extension rising food prices, transportation and global warming were all serious areas of concerns for residents who bashed both "big business" and "big government" during a session that spanned nearly two hours.

Although participants who spoke indicated they were generally happy with a state where independence is appreciated, community and diversity are celebrated and civility is the rule, there was a detectable angst when talk turned to Vermont's future.

One woman suggested Vermonters would have to tap what she perceived as the state's prized attributes - "neighborliness, civility and independence" - to sustain each other in the short term.

"The opportunity is to take the best of what we have … and try to figure out how we're going to do the first stop-gap, which is to make sure people aren't cold this winter," she said. "We need to make sure everyone has at least their basic needs met."

That sentiment was echoed several times by residents, who expressed widely disparate views on a broad range of other issues, including who should be blamed for the problems facing the state.Montpelier resident Scott Sawyer said he believed the buck stops with Gov. James Douglas.

"We have a terrible governor, a terrible visionless governor," Sawyer said. "To the extent we keep electing terrible visionless leaders, we get what we deserve."

The alternative?

"Elect someone else," he said.

East Montpelier resident Tim Carver had harsh words for the Vermont Legislature and two former Vermont governors - Phil Hoff and Madeleine Kunin - whom he blamed for an evolving "elitist vision" of Vermont that has effectively robbed people of their property rights.

"The planning process is mortally wounded," he said. "It has nothing to do with the people who are sitting in this room; it has to do with a vision of what this state should look like down the road."

Carver said a message should be sent to lawmakers reminding them to represent the people who elected them.

"What's not being considered is working people being able to stay here that's not in the plan apparently," he said referring to strict land use regulations at both the state and local level. "It's economic discrimination and it's legislated."

While most residents spoke highly of Vermont's physical attributes - describing it as an attractive oasis for people from around the country and the world - some urged the commission to consider what would be a "sustainable population" for the state and at least one questioned the idyllic descriptions he was hearing.

The man, who works for the state Department of Human Services, said he is all-too-familiar with a different part of Vermont.

"I see the underbelly," he said. "I see the people who don't typically go to the town meetings… I see addictions, I see homelessness, I see abuse and I'm trying to figure out for 30 years … why we still have all of this in the midst of these almost movie-type scenes."

There were a few forward-looking suggestions.

One woman suggested placing solar panels in bus shelters might make public transportation a more attractive option in the cold winter months. A man proposed a "victory garden" where food could be grown on the Statehouse lawn. He said a windmill and solar panels might be worthwhile additions to the Statehouse.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington County, suggested Vermont make the most of the spike in oil prices by becoming a leader in energy conservation technology.

The commission, which is in the midst of an 18-month process that includes forums and focus groups in all 14 counties, plans to prepare a multi-media report based on what it hears that is expected to be released next March.