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Re-vote scheduled on ordinance

By Dawn Nieters

WILMINGTON- On November 5 Americans will head to the polls and cast their ballots for a variety of local, state and federal offices. But voters in Wilmington will have yet another issue to ponder as they step into the booth—whether they’ve changed their minds on the issue of public nudity in town.

Town clerk Susan Manton recommended “piggybacking” the vote on the general election in order to minimize confusion with absentee ballots and other issues created by two elections conducted in such a short timeframe. In July, following adoption of the town’s public indecency ordinance, advocates of the traditionally clothing-optional use of the Ledges at Harriman Reservoir petitioned for a special town meeting at which voters were asked whether the ordinance should be rescinded. The effort failed, with the ordinance upheld by a scant seven votes, 289 to 282.

Since then, petitioners have collected 135 signatures in support of reconsidering the August 27 vote, more than the 89 needed for a valid petition. According to Manton, no one has taken official responsibility for the petition, pages of which have been turned in by several residents. Manton says some of the signatures were submitted in an unmarked envelope left under her window on Monday, September 23, a few days before the petition deadline.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever received petition pages this way before,” Manton said. “I guess the theory is that those who signed the language are those who are taking ownership.”

Manton said she counsels potential petitioners to use a “point man” of sorts to submit the petition, on the assumption that members of the public and press will be seeking information regarding who is responsible for submitting the petition. Phil Markham, organizer of the Friends of the Ledges advocacy group, did not take ownership but in a recent article said the petition is a “consensus of many local people, some because of wishing to avoid conflict wish to be anonymous.”

Markham said his group is “thrilled” about the petition for a new vote. The petition which was circulated features a laundry list of reasons for reconsidering or rescinding the ordinance, some of which did not sit well with members of the selectboard. Chair Fred Skwirut said he took offense to language which says the ordinance was “conceived in bias, hatred, misinformation and propaganda, rather than fact.” Skwirut said he was particularly offended by the notion that bias and hatred played a part in the process. Board member John Redd echoed his sentiments.

Selectboard members adopted the Wilmington Public Indecency Ordinance in June, in response to complaints from Vernon resident Margaret Frost, whose family owns a camp near the Harriman Reservoir shoreline. Frost came before the board in 2001 to report her observation of growing problems with nudity at the Ledges. Frost alleged the traditional boundaries of the beach had been stretched closer and closer to the shoreline adjacent to her camp. She told board members the nudity had become “in your face” and said she had also witnessed an increase in lewd and lascivious conduct.

Selectboard members engaged in discussions with Frost, representatives from U.S. Generating Company, which owns the property, and Markham, to deal with issues raised by Frost and a handful of other complainants. Ledges users said some of the complaints were not valid, but pledged to address legitimate concerns about boundaries and lewd and lascivious conduct.

Frost returned this summer and said nothing had changed as a result of those efforts, and advocated for a public indecency ordinance.

Two weeks later selectboard members approved the ordinance by a four to one vote and the petition to rescind the ordinance was circulated and submitted in short order.

Ledges users and their supporters say the narrow margin of victory for ordinance proponents may have been the result of misinformation circulated through what they allege is a smear campaign by a handful of anti-Ledges individuals.

Amongst those who campaigned in support of the ordinance were the Citizens Interaction Network, headed by Halifax resident Donald Perna. CIN set up a table outside of the pre-vote informational meeting in August, with materials from its own organization, pictures allegedly taken of naturists at the Ledges, and condoms purported to have been collected in and around the Ledges.

A pre-vote information hearing has not been chosen, but town officials are considering scheduling it for Wednesday, October 30.


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