SANBORNTON — Faced with an impassioned crowd of some 150 residents at an often raucous public hearing at the Town Hall on Wednesday night, the Board of Selectmen agreed to schedule a special town meeting to see if the town will vote to overturn the selectmen's decision to close the so-called "swap shop" at the transfer station.
In September, the selectmen, acting on the recommendation of Primex, the town's insurance carrier, voted unanimously to prohibit picking the metal pile and close the swap shop. Within two weeks, a petition was circulating to convene a special town meeting to reverse the decision, which was submitted to the selectmen when they met on Oct. 14.
However, the petition read "to see if the town will vote to rescind the decision of the Board of Selectmen to close the recycling facility at the transfer station and continue the operation of the center." Since the petition sought to undo an action the selectmen had not taken, it did not bind them to schedule a special town meeting. Instead the board scheduled the public hearing in hopes of either reaching some sort of compromise or sparing the expense of a special town meeting by deferring the issue until the annual Town Meeting in March.
The crowd, determined to press the issue at a special town meeting, was having none of it. One speaker after another challenged what they called misplaced and exaggerated concerns about liability and urged them to reverse their decision. Meanwhile, a second more precise petition requesting a special town meeting, which the selectmen could not deny, was circulated throughout the meeting.
Dave Nickerson, who chairs the selectboard, opened the hearing with a spirited defense of the board's decision, explaining that, after discussions with a couple of residents, the selectmen asked Primex to assess the operation of the transfer station. In its report, Primex recommended prohibiting "the practice of picking or salvaging items from any locations within the facility," including the swap shop, to spare the town from potential liability. Nickerson stressed that "there are all kinds of risks involved." Defective electronic appliances posed risks of fire, he said. Several times, he referred to discarded safety helmets, liable to failure if reused, saying "if a child were killed wearing a helmet from the swap shop, I could not live with it." Bedding and clothing, he warned, could carry bed bugs.
"This was not an easy decision," Selectman Johnny Vantassel said. "I knew a lot of people were going to be mad." Vantassel, who worked at the transfer station, conceded "we've never had an actual problem," but insisted "it's a liability."
Karen Ober, the third selectman, said "my husband is one of the biggest dump pickers in this town," then claimed her decision was "what was right for everyone, because of the liability." Referring to the $5,000 cost of a special town meeting, she asked "is it worth it to get free stuff?" and was met with a resounding "yes!"
While Chris Boldt, the town attorney, stressed the risks of liability, a number of resident flatly dismissed them. One 82 year-old woman said she had spent 65 years going to flea markets, antique stores and the swap shop without harm.
"I'm tired of living under the 999 law," she declared, alluding to the fear of the one chance in 1,000 of a mishap.
Jim Fluet reminded selectmen that the town deploys policemen with loaded firearms, sends firefighters into burning buildings and expects employees to operate heavy vehicles and machinery.
"And you're worried about a bookshelf?" he asked.
Another man told the selectmen that if they are worried about liabilities to the town, he would be willing to show them around town buildings, "including the one we're sitting in," and point out any number of hazards that need fixing.
Others extolled the benefits of the swap shop, where one person's trash becomes another person's treasure. A young man cited Thomas Edison, who said that to become an inventor "you need a lot of imagination and a pile of junk."
A woman who was raised in town said that, like her mother before her, she has outfitted her children with clothes, provided them with books, and supplied them with toys from the swap shop. "It's just down the road," she said, adding that she often walked down the street to check the inventory.
Lynn Chong, who shepherded the petition through the crowd, pointed proudly to her red fleece from The Gap and Levi's jeans, both from the swap shop. "There's no reason to shred this to make another fleece or turn a pair of good jeans into rags," she said.
Nina Gardner recalled that years ago, when her children were at home, she found a complete set of the Harvard Classics, "all 75 volumes bound in blue with gold trim in the original box" at the swap shop.
Pete Drouin, who accompanied the selectmen and representatives of Primex when they visited the transfer station, urged his fellow residents to take control of the swap shop from the selectmen "so they sleep at night" while Mike Laughy, who has lived in town for 64 years, said flatly "what has been changed can be unchanged."
Remarking that "the mind can only absorb what the rear can endure," Boldt suggested a brief recess.
When the meeting resumed, Chong showed a video of transfer stations, recycling facilities and swap shops in other towns. As the lights went up, someone announced that it "demonstrated that the swap shop in Sanbornton operated better than any shown in the movie."
Then Chong read the fresh petition, which bore some 130 signatures, seeking a special town meeting to see if the town would reopen the swap shop, reconvene the solid waste committee, and require those using the transfer to display a sticker on their vehicles as proof of residency.
"I had legal help," Chong admitted, but said she was "not at liberty to say from whom."
"It's wordier than I would have wanted," said Boldt, "but it will pass muster."
All three selectmen indicated they were comfortable with the outcome of the hearing. "The town should vote on it," said Vantassel.
"Everybody had to have their say," said Ober, who wondered "are 150 people speaking for the whole town." Nevertheless, she said "I'm happy with the outcome. If the town accepts the responsibility, it's not falling on our shoulders."
Ober was echoed by Nickerson who said "the three of us are not going to assume the responsibility for what might happen." He said he would have preferred to take the issue to the Town Meeting in March, but added "This is fine, this is good."
The Board of Selectmen will next meet on Nov. 18, when Nickersn said that the petition for a special town meeting would be accepted.