VERGENNES — What began as an emotional issue for many citizens of the Vergennes area, who perceived a threat to the popular and longstanding Christian nativity display on the city’s central green, is now a technical exercise for Vergennes aldermen.
At their Tuesday meeting, aldermen continued to work on a policy (click here to read policy) that will not only allow the roughly 60-year-old crèche to remain on the green, but also permit other religious and secular displays there — as long as they have signs that identify their sponsors.
Aldermen also now plan to put up one large sign on the park’s information booth stating the city does not endorse or support any displays, a key element, according to their research, in allowing such displays on public property.
Aldermen had previously planned to put up four signs at the entrances to the downtown park, but as Mayor Michael Daniels said on Tuesday, they are taking their time, making sure they are getting the policy right, and making changes as they go along.
“We’re biting off little bits and pieces,” Daniels said. “We’re looking for more information.”
Their work has also morphed into creating a larger policy that states it intends “to establish a means of control for the use of the City Green.”
As City Manager Mel Hawley told the crowd of about two dozen, 15 of whom wore yellow “Keep the Crèche on the Green” stickers, the green is a “multi-use park.”
Hawley said city officials are trying to create a written policy that will allow them to manage a park that hosts events, displays, and concerts; is also used by citizens and families for relaxation; and must be maintained by city workers.
“If we can come up with a policy that everyone is equally upset with, then I think we’ve done a good job,” he said.
The draft policy has three sections, or articles. The third simply states the city manager handles basic park maintenance and expenses, but must consult with aldermen on costs that exceed $1,000.
The first, called “Special Use Policy,” deals with nonprofit and for-profit activities on the green. All for-profit activities would require council approval, as is the case now.
The city clerk would handle scheduling of nonprofit activities, and schedule them on a first-come, first-serve basis. As written, the policy lists nine longstanding existing events that are considered pre-approved and would not require annual applications: including the city’s Memorial Day celebration, Vergennes and French Heritage days, the city’s farmers’ market, two church festivals, the Holiday Stroll, Pumpkins in the Park, and Vergennes City Band concerts.
At Aldermen Renny Perry’s suggestion, aldermen reached a consensus that those events should be listed on a calendar and not in a policy.
“I think of those as city events. I don’t think we have to give anyone permission,” he said.
Most discussion centered on the “Displays” article, including several comments from the crowd, which did not rival the 140 that attended the previous council meeting to address the crèche issue, but was still substantial by council meeting standards. Daniels said emails also continue to pour into the city’s website on the issue.
Residents Donna Scott and Ted Sheldrick asked aldermen to grandfather the crèche’s location and timing given its history, even if those sponsoring it are required to file an application every year.
“If someone did want to be difficult, they could try to preempt the crèche,” Scott said.
Daniels said the primary authors of the policy — Alderman Bill Benton, Hawley and himself — would consider the request.
“When we get back together, we’ll discuss that,” Daniels said.
Sheldrick also made a plea not to require signs for the crèche and other displays.
“To have a sign, that’s something that mars and distracts,” Sheldrick said. “Is it something that’s really necessary?”
Benton, who has taken the lead in researching and writing the green policy, said that it is.
“For private displays on public property, there are three strict criteria,” Benton said, citing a sign identifying the sponsoring group, an indication that the municipality does not endorse the display, and “a consistent application process.”
The “Displays” policy calls for the city clerk to handle applications from the less-busy months from Oct. 15 to March 15, and aldermen to deal with applications the rest of the year.
It requires annual applications submitted at least 30 days before installation. They must list the names of sponsors, state the dates and preferred locations of installation, provide a photo or sketch, and list dimensions and materials. Displays are limited to a footprint of 400 square feet and a height of 10 feet, and the sponsor must provide the sign.
According to the draft, a use may be denied if it is “likely to create a public nuisance or pose a clear and present danger to public safety.”
Perry said he suggested that language be added and that it is typical in towns with similar polices. He said “clear and present danger” refers to risky displays such as those that might involve fires or pyrotechnics, and aldermen could rely on a “standard dictionary” definition for public nuisance, or would be allowed by statute to create their own definition.
Anthony Duprey, a Waltham attorney in attendance, said he had consulted with another lawyer who is an expert in such policies. That expert urged the section be tightened up because it is “so vague it could be arbitrary,” Duprey said.
Duprey also said the expert suggested that aldermen added a timetable for the city to respond to an application for a display, and to create an appeal process for a party whose application is denied. Duprey agreed to email the recommendations to aldermen to include in their deliberations.
The other significant issue that arose was whether the clerk or the aldermen should make the call on applications, or even possibly create a committee to handle the task.
Resident Jay Stetzel noted that residents at the earlier meeting had expressed concerns that major holidays of non-Christian religions fall outside the time frame handled by the clerk, creating the appearance of possible discrimination. Stetzel also said some applications might put City Clerk Joan Devine in an awkward position.
“I’m thinking of Joan here,” he said, adding later, “If it always comes to the city council, you wouldn’t have to worry about the dates.”
Perry said his research showed that applications were usually handled by a civic panel, and Devine said she had no objection to a committee handling applications.
Daniels said there were pluses and minuses in any approach, and one thing aldermen were trying to incorporate in the policy was the ability to give a timely answer to an applicant.
“If there is a committee of three, and two are out of town, can we make a decision?” Daniels said. “I’m not saying no, but we’re in the decision (-making) process.”
Hawley said officials had been wrestling with the question, and whatever the final decision was it would not be “arbitrary,” but would balance the needs of applicants and the many uses of the park.
“Don’t think we’re saying no. It (will have) a path that someone can follow to apply,” he said.
Daniels said there is no timetable for making a final decision on the policy, the latest draft of which may be found at addisonindependent.com.
“It’s been a real process,” Daniels said. “And we are not doing anything until we get it right.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.