Voters support indecency ordinance in narrow decision
By Dawn Nieters
WILMINGTON- Voters on Tuesday, by the narrowest of margins, weighed in to uphold the town’s public indecency ordinance, approved by the town’s selectboard in July. Only seven votes made the difference in keeping the town’s ban on public nudity on the books.
Nearly 600 registered voters cast ballots, with 289 voting to uphold the ordinance and 282 voting to rescind it, as proposed in a petition presented by Wilmington resident and Ledges user Kevin Downey.
At Monday evening’s informational meeting on the issue, most who made public comments spoke out in support of the Ledges and against the ordinance or the process by which it was enacted.
Selectboard chair Fred Skwirut started the meeting, after comments on the rules of order by moderator Frank Spencer, with an overview of their decision. Skwirut explained the board had been approached by Vernon resident Margaret Frost, whose family owns a camp on Harriman Reservoir, about problems she perceived with nude sunbathing and swimming at the Ledges, an area which has been utilized by naturists for decades. Frost, according to Skwirut, expressed concerns about nude bathers encroaching on an area used by the camp owners, down the shore from the traditional Ledges area.
Skwirut said the board had met with Ledges users and the power company and felt they’d arrived at a solution to limit the area in which nude sunbathing would be permitted. U.S. Generating Company, which owns the land, initially indicated interest in such a plan, but later determined it could create legal liabilities for the company.
“We felt the only way to control the problem, and I do believe there’s a problem there, was the ordinance,” Skwirut explained. “The problem, I believe, is these websites advertising the place as a nude bathing area. People who come up here don’t realize it’s just the Ledges.”
Skwirut added that the ordinance was the “last thing” the board wanted to do, but added that their options were limited.
Following Skwirut’s comments, Don Horton, a Wilmington resident who identified himself as a Ledges user, moved to allow non-registered voters to comment, thereby suspending the meeting rules. The motion nearly failed to get a second, until Wilmington resident Marv Neuman did so. The assembly then voted resoundingly against opening the meeting to non-voters.
Questions about enforcement were also raised, and Skwirut said he did not anticipate it resulting in increased costs to the town, noting the board felt U.S. Generating Company would pick up the additional costs.
Downey, who organized the petition, was one of the first to speak out against the ordinance during the meeting.
“I guess I started this whole thing,” Downey said. “Actually, I guess the selectboard started it. I respect Fred (Skwirut, selectboard chair) for saying he’s concerned about sprawl. I am too. But we have an opportunity with the current statutes to address sprawl. The lewd and lascivious is where the sprawl is.”
Downey also said he felt the issue had become not just about the Ledges, but also about taxes, which he predicted would go up due to costs resulting from the ordinance.
Wilmington business owner Bob Pelosi then discussed his objections to the ordinance, and proposed an alternative which he said he hoped would be more palatable to townspeople and visitors.
“I’ve put a fair amount of time into looking at other states and how they handle this,” Pelosi said. “The problem here isn’t that there are people naked at the Ledges, it’s people having sex in the woods.”
Pelosi went on to enumerate problems he perceived with the ordinance, citing the fact that it includes no age provision, thereby creating the possibility that “a six-year-old changing at the beach” could be cited. He cautioned that if the ordinance were not enforced across the board, the town could be put at risk of a discrimination suit. He added the ordinance could preclude certain works of fine and performing arts, and could even prohibit him from taking a quick dip in the creek behind his house in his own yard.
“I propose a yes vote tomorrow (to rescind the ordinance) with a subsequent submission to the selectboard. It doesn’t prohibit nudity, but it does prohibit a whole list of sexual behaviors…and has been upheld in Constitutional challenges.”
Town manager Sonia Alexander noted the board came to adopt this particular ordinance, which matches almost word-for-word one used in South Burlington, after determining it had been upheld in court challenges.
Selectboard member Paul Kasanoff then detailed his objections to the activity around the Ledges, responding to Pelosi’s comments by saying “I think if we have to have a few plays scrapped because of nudity so be it.”
Kasanoff concluded his remarks by rallying in support of the ordinance. “Keep this town moral, safe, stop all of these people from coming in here and stop them from performing these disgusting acts,” he said.
Sally Ann Bergquist, a resident for 35 years, said the valley is a “special place” and objected to the restrictions the ordinance implements. “I don’t go to the Ledges myself, but that’s my right to be there if I want to go. I don’t want that taken away.”
Bergquist said she has met many nice people who frequent the Ledges and said “it’s a tourist attraction for many fine people too.” Her remarks were met with a round of applause by many in attendance.
Several other voters advocated for a “live and let live” approach, including local business owner Andrew Palumbo.
“I for one am sick of hearing from people on both sides of this issue,” Palumbo said, continuing to thank developer Brian Palmiter, who has been accused of advocating for the nudity ban to improve the offerings for owners at his high-end home community located adjacent to the reservoir, as well as the Ledges users. “We need Brian Palmiter and we need the Ledges users.”
Palumbo also noted that nudity is simply a non-issue for many other countries. “There are a lot of nude beaches in Europe. There are even unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. I’m pretty sure Europe hasn’t fallen off the map yet.”
Former planning commissioner Gary Austin echoed Palumbo’s sentiments, adding he is opposed to any restrictions of personal liberty and noting his concern for Kasanoff’s statement regarding the arts. “It troubles me Paul, when you say ‘oh just one or two plays.’ Let’s burn a few books. That worked out really well. We diminish ourselves endlessly and tragically when we diminish our liberty.”