Greg Dennis: College-town collaboration is a winner

Every year after Town Meeting Day, Vermonters get an interesting glimpse at what we “really” think about some controversial statewide issues. That glimpse comes courtesy of State Sen. William Doyle’s survey distributed at many town meetings.
This year’s findings are worth noting on several counts, from legal weed to wind power. But before we consider those statewide issues, let’s first turn to some local ones.
During the run-up to the town of Middlebury vote on a sweeping proposal — to relocate the town offices, build a new gym, and tear down the old municipal building to create a park — there was a lot of grousing from opponents about Middlebury College’s purported interest in controlling the downtown.
It will be interesting to see what those folks have to say, now that the college has made a substantial gift of land to the town.
The critics claimed that the proposal to have the site of the old municipal building turned into a park was just more evidence of creeping college domination. Another example, in their view, was a recently completed agreement that gave the college complete control over some riverfront land between the Ilsley Library and Otter Creek.
The diehard opposition lives on, in the form of an ill-conceived petition drive that would force a revote on the town office-park-gym plan. We’ll know this week whether there are enough petition signatures to force the town to go through another vote.
And if those political permutations don’t yet have your head spinning, consider now that the college and town have agreed to that new deal, in which the college donated riverfront land behind the library to the town.
Take a moment to reflect on the scope of this gift. The 1.4 acres in the parcel (of which the college owned 78 percent and the town owned 22 percent) are valued at $1 million. The land overlooks and reaches down to a lovely stretch of river. It has significant development potential. Indeed, the agreement between town and college contemplated the college working with a developer to take advantage of that potential.
With this new deal, control of the land behind the library now resides where it should, with the town itself. Rather than the town’s having to consider a college-developer proposal for the land, the town will be in a position to completely control the process itself.
I’ve been critical of the college for its irresponsible failure to divest out of the fossil fuels that are choking the planet. But on these local issues, I believe the college has acted responsibly and with both its own and the town’s interests at heart.
Widening the lens now to statewide issues and one of Vermont’s prized political traditions: the annual survey distributed at town meetings by Sen. Doyle.
He started this tradition in 1970, the year after he was first elected to the Legislature. This year’s survey was as wide-ranging and quirky as any, touching on marijuana, labeling genetically modified food, wind power, cell phones and spying by the federal government.
Indeed, we can now confirm that a large majority of Vermonters (at least among those answering the paper survey) feel that “the federal government collect(s) too much information on us” (69 percent agreeing).
As for labeling GMOs in our food, 76 percent favored it. The survey also saw huge majorities for increasing the statewide minimum wage (71 percent), the importance of cell and broadband service (87 percent), the unsustainable nature of rising education costs (69 percent), and concern about the use of opiates (89 percent, no doubt showing the impact of Gov. Shumlin’s high national profile on this issue).
Another huge majority (74 percent) emerged for prohibiting drivers from using cell phones.
I wonder if all those people driving while talking on their cells were just too busy to chime in on this one. While it would improve road safety to prohibit talking on the phone while driving, an outright ban would surely bring howls of protest from drivers who are accustomed to multitasking at the wheel.
One survey surprise was the level of support for reducing the state’s prison population through alternatives for non-violent offenders. That’s a good idea in the eyes of 72 percent of respondents.
Doyle said he included this question at the request of Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. So this finding might well have a political impact on how we treat some of those people we are now sending to prison.
Critics carp that the Doyle poll is unscientific and indeed it is, with respondents self-selecting rather than being somewhat randomized by phone polling.
But its results continue to intrigue anybody interested in how Vermonters feel about some of the big issues.
For example, Addison County residents who have fought so hard against the natural gas pipeline won’t find much to cheer in the survey. Asked, “Is natural gas an important part of Vermont’s economy,” 54 percent said yes and only 21 percent said no. Many (25 percent) said they were unsure.
Asked if Vermont is “moving in the right direction on health care,” 41 percent said yes and 37 percent said no. An additional 22 percent said they weren’t sure — another indication that Gov. Shumlin has got his work cut out for him.
As for marijuana, when it comes to legal weed it seems we just can’t make up our minds: While 44 percent in the survey supported legalization of marijuana, another 44 percent opposed it, with 12 percent unsure.
I suppose we didn’t need a statewide survey to tell us that marijuana confuses things.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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