City OKs new policy for park displays

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on Tuesday, July 17, unanimously approved new rules for use of the city green for religious displays and special events, a policy that sets a specific application process and timeline for placement of such features as the longstanding Christian nativity scene.
The new policy, some four months in the making, caps a city-wide debate on use of the green after a resident questioned the decades-old display of a crèche on municipal property at Christmastime and whether that display could be construed as the city endorsing a particular religion. The city council last April hosted a public meeting on the issue that drew around 140 people who shared their views on such principles as the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion.
After listening to the public feedback, city officials agreed a new policy was in order. On Tuesday, they fine-tuned and endorsed a “City Green Policy” that, among other things:
•  Stipulates that except for for-profit entities or other organized groups, all activities for the city green must be scheduled through the city clerk, who will maintain a schedule and avert conflicts by scheduling uses on a “first-come, first-served” basis. Any use by a for-profit entity or organized groups must be approved by the city council.
•  Requires groups or individuals seeking to place a display on the city green to file an application at the city offices no more than 90 days from the time the proposed display is to be erected. The application must include a photo or sketch with approximate dimensions confirming the display does not have a footprint of more than 400 square feet and a height greater than 10 feet.
Applicants must also agree to affix a sign to the display, or close to it, stating the name of its owner or sponsor.
•  Sets up a three-person committee that will review the display applications. The committee will include the city clerk (or assistant clerk, in his or her absence); a member of the Vergennes Development Review Board (or alternate DRB member); and a member of the city’s recreation committee (or alternate). The committee must act on a display application within 15 days of receiving it, or it will be deemed approved. Denial of an application can be appealed within 15 days. The city council must take up the appeal within 30 days of its filing.
Grounds for denying a proposed display include if it is “deemed likely to create a public nuisance or pose a clear and present danger to public safety.”
A public nuisance is defined in the policy as “interfering with a common right of the general public or an indefinite number of persons or an unreasonable interference with the public health, safety and welfare of the community.”
• In addition to allowing the crèche and other similar proposals that meet the city’s criteria, requires that displays be removed within 45 days.
City officials and residents were pleased with the final product.
“Overall, I am immensely impressed with the way the city council, mayor, and manager have dealt with issue,” resident Hannah Weisman, who brought the issue to the fore, wrote in response to an e-mail request for comment. “I feel like they have handled it responsibly, reasonably and sensitively.
“The policy will enable public expression without the perception of city involvement or endorsement,” she added. “When I initially raised this issue with the mayor and city manager back in January, I could not have imagined a more positive outcome.”
Also voicing satisfaction were several residents who turned out for Tuesday’s city council meeting. Some of them sported stickers reading, “Keep the Crèche on the Park.”
“I would like to thank the mayor and the council for all their hard work,” said resident Mary Harris. “Thanks for keeping the people in the front of your mind.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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