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Middlebury junk law petition

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — A Middle-bury resident has filed a citizens’ petition requesting that the community’s new junk law be put to a townwide Australian ballot vote.

The petition was filed on June 16 by Case Street resident Peggy Kimball, who, with some helpers, gathered 242 valid signatures — 20 more than the required threshold of 5 percent (222) of Middlebury’s total 4,435 registered voters.

Kimball’s petition targets the new junk law that selectmen endorsed, by a 5-2 margin, in early May. The new law would require residents in the core village of Middlebury and the “main village corridor” of East Middlebury to remove or screen junk on their property — or face fines and possible court action.

Kimball said she filed the petition because she believes townspeople deserve the opportunity to weigh in on a measure that will have a direct impact on what they can do with their property.

“People have a right to vote on things that affect them, and this is one of them,” said Kimball, who does not reside in either junk ordinance district.

“I felt it should be the people’s vote,” she added. “Too many of our rights are being taken away, and this is the reason why I did this.”

Selectmen approved the new junk law in response to a growing number of complaints about debris and/or junked cars being stored in some residential yards. Residents in the Rogers Road/Forbes Circle areas were particularly vocal about junk-filled yards in their neighborhoods.

After holding several public hearings that drew dozens of area residents, selectmen adopted a new ordinance that:

• Defines junk as such items as “old scrap copper, brass, iron, steel, household appliances, furniture, batteries, glass, rubber debris, plumbing fixtures” or “any discarded, dismantled, wrecked, scrapped, or mined motor vehicles or parts thereof.”

• Makes it unlawful to place, discard or abandon junk or any junk motor vehicles in a place where any such item is visible from the traveled way of a highway, or visible to an abutting landowner from any portion of an abutting property owner’s land.

Prohibits placing, discarding or abandoning junk or any junked vehicles upon the land of another with or without the consent of the owner, when any such item is visible from the traveled way of a highway, or visible from an abutting property owner’s land.

• Requires that all junkyards, scrap yards, and places of outdoor storage of junk be effectively screened from public view by a fence or vegetation of at least eight feet tall. Any fence must be of “sound construction and of solid vertical board or ‘stockade’ type construction.” Any vegetation used for screening must be “of sufficient density so that it effectively screens the area from view.”

Junk law offenders would get 30 days in which to clean up the violation, which must be flagged by an “interested person or party” — namely, someone residing in the immediate neighborhood in which the violation is occurring.

People who fail to clean up their junk within 30 days would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 per offense. The town would also have the right to seek “injunctive relief and civil penalties” against offenders through Addison County Superior Court.

It quickly became clear after the selectboard’s adoption that not everyone was on board with the new law — including two members of the Middlebury selectboard. Selectwoman Janelle Ashley voted against the law out of concern that it might hamper farmers located within the ordinance zones.

Selectman Craig Bingham argued that the ordinance should apply to the entire town, rather than be selectively applied to the most populated areas of town.

But a majority of selectmen defended the “zoned” nature of the ordinance, saying it recognized the needs to police junk in more densely populated areas, while acknowledging that junk storage is less of an issue in more rural areas with larger lot sizes. Supporters also argue the law could be extended incrementally to other parts of the town, if warranted.

Selectboard Chairman John Tenny said the Kimball petition will be discussed at the board’s next meeting, June 27.

“We knew the petition was circulating, but we didn’t know where it would finish,” Tenny said. “Obviously, we will be required to conduct new public hearings and warn a townwide vote.”

Tenny said he continues to support the ordinance approved in May.

“I look forward to help make (the ordinance) pass again,” he said.

By law, selectmen must schedule the townwide vote on the ordinance within 60 days of the petition being filed. That means the vote probably will take place in mid-August.

It appears as though opponents of the ordinance will need to work extra hard for their cause. Many area residents are either on vacation or not tuned in to local government affairs in August. And Middlebury’s charter requires that at least 15 percent (around 670) of the town’s registered voters cast ballots in an election on the ordinance issue in order for it to be declared a valid vote, according to Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster.

In April, only 66 voters turned out at the polls to approve a $240,238 roof replacement project for Mary Hogan Elementary School.

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