The time is now for Essex residents looking to weigh in on proposed changes to the town’s firearms ordinance.
The selectboard’s public outreach campaign kicked off earlier this month with a public forum at Founders Memorial School, where several town employees outlined the proposed ordinances and shooting-related topics before the crowd of more than 50 people broke into groups to discuss different locations in town.
There will be several more events in the coming months, including three informational booths planned for June 21 at Sand Hill Park, June 27 at the farmers’ market and July 14 at the Essex Free Library. The town has also created explainers for self-guided site visits to the potentially impacted areas. More information on the booths and those tours be found at: www.essex.org/firearms.
Residents can share input at any time throughout the process via PlaceSpeak, a civic engagement platform that offers a wide range of input opportunities. As of Monday morning, more than 50 people had taken an online survey about the ordinance changes, and a discussion board featured more than 75 comments – though a handful of residents have commented multiple times.
Comments on the forum date show mixed reactions from residents. Some say change is needed, given the growth of Essex over the last decade. Others say the selectboard is trying to fix a non-problem.
The selectboard has repeatedly emphasized the importance of an online meeting space because some people have reported feeling intimidated during previous discussions.
At Monday night’s meeting, they reiterated that concern. Selectwoman Elaine Sopchak said she heard from several people who felt “ganged up on” at the June forum, and Andy Watts heard PlaceSpeak had already featured some “abusive discussions.”
Facilitator Jennifer Knauer said she’s noticed most of the forum attendees struggled to consider the “middling options,” instead favoring either an all-out ban or no ordinance at all. But she said experience shows her the “extreme” messages posted on the online forum are often followed by more moderate ideas. She’s looking to see what happens when those conversations “start to temper.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s the exploration for all of us.”
She also said PlaceSpeak allows residents to post anonymously after confirming they live in town. That should help them feel more comfortable about voicing their opinions, she said.
Knauer attended the selectboard meeting with a few questions of her own, including whether the online forum should allow comments from people who live outside of Essex.
Several residents in attendance felt strongly that the forum should be only open to Essex residents: “It’s not their issue, it’s our issue,” Tim Fagnant said.
The board agreed, unanimously voting to keep the discussion local.
The current ordinance prohibits shooting in certain parts of town while the village has its own ordinance prohibiting all firearms discharge. The selectboard hopes the public outreach will help it decide whether to expand the no-discharge area, based on recommendations from former police Chief Brad LaRose.
He had suggested starting with Indian Brook Park and Saxon Hill Forest, two popular walking and biking locations, and said a zone-based approach that limits discharging certain guns may be the best compromise to push through any changes.
LaRose included those recommendations in a report he gave to the selectboard in 2017, a year after a Deer Crossing Ln. resident found a rifle bullet lodged in his wall.
After the public outreach campaign, Knauer will create a report with staff’s help before presenting it to the selectboard. Any ordinance changes must include at least one public hearing, which will be scheduled sometime in the late summer or early fall, if needed.
The selectboard chose that process – considered the expedited approach – over creating a taskforce in hopes of installing any changes before this hunting season.
The town will host its next public forum July 19 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. at a location yet to be determined.