A report summarizing how residents feel about changing the shooting ordinance has concluded there’s no real consensus in town, forcing the selectboard to confront the issue without a clear directive.

Facilitator Jennifer Knauer, who authored the report, noted most residents who participated in the months-long public engagement process believed the proposed ordinance changes unfairly targets hunting and doesn’t make anyone safer. “A few voices,” meanwhile, have been strongly in favor of the expansion, she wrote.

Despite that, Knauer said the selectboard can’t consider the input a town-wide directive due to the low participation: About 1 percent of the town’s population joined the online forum. She instead called her findings “indications only” based on those who actively engaged in the process.

“How you use this
information is going to be really important,” Knauer told the board August 6.

Indeed, the big question now facing members is how to use Knauer’s report – half of which is unabridged transcripts with lengthy opines from both supporters and opponents of the changes – in making their final decision.

Their first chance to parse through the findings in earnest is during a special meeting at the fairground’s Robert E. Miller Expo Centre on Thursday night, four days before they will decide whether to move forward with changing the ordinance.

To help the board’s discussion, Knauer broke down several topics herself: the unintended impacts of an ordinance change; criteria residents used to determine the appropriate level of restrictions; and complementary or alternative options.

She also detailed the findings of a survey taken by 175 residents, which offered varied options – no change, prohibitions based on ammunition types or a full-out ban on firearms discharges – across a half-dozen areas in town.

Few chose intermediate measures, the responses show, instead favoring one of the two extremes. Opinions were also split geographically: Most within areas that currently prohibit shooting support expanding the ordinance to Indian Brook. Most who live outside the no-discharge area, meanwhile, are opposed to any ordinance changes anywhere in town, Knauer wrote.

Some selectboard members were disappointed with the participation numbers, but others were pleased with the depth of the engagement, specifically the online forum.

“There are opinions in there from all 360 points of the compass and all of them pretty strong,” selectman Michael Plageman said. “That’s a tool that I will use a lot of.”

Asked if she believed those who participated felt like they were heard, Knauer wouldn’t bite. She said the only thing she can report with “absolute confidence” is that “it takes courage to show up.” But she did admit she expected more people to participate in the online forum.

She also offered the selectboard a bit of advice.

“This decision fundamentally impacts the wellbeing of people who are watching it play out in lots of different ways,” Knauer said. “My guess is that it is excruciating to watch somebody else make this decision.

“They’re looking for evidence that you’re making informed decisions, thoughtful and opened-minded decisions based on all the input that’s come up,” she continued.

That was seconded by resident Erik Bailey, a 22-year Army veteran and National Rifle Association firearms instructor who said the “open” process made him feel included. He did worry, however, that the selectboard may weigh “emotion and fears that are not based in facts” against actual evidence.

The selectboard has hoped to finalize any ordinance changes before hunting season – an expedited timeline members justified by pointing to how long the discussion has gone on in town. Others in attendance asked members to slow down.

“No need to rush,” resident Tim Fagnant told the board last week. “Just come to a consensus, make sure everybody’s heard, because … you’re making choices for land-owners that non-land owners want, potentially.”

A group of eight residents who oppose the changes shared their own recommendations in the form of a nine-page statement letter and a petition with more than 480 signatures, including a mix of residents and those with a “vested interest.”

The group asserts there have been no hunting fatalities in Essex – noting the oft-referenced death of John Reiss was the result of negligent use of a backyard shooting range – and says Knauer’s report demands a “mandate” for maintaining the status quo.

The group also recommended the town add an “exception statement” to the current ordinance to allow hunting even in areas of where shooting is now prohibited. They also ask for increased signage, educational outreach and the creation of a town shooting range.

“We’d love to solve this at the local level, but we feel very strongly about our rights,” Bailey said, clearly alluding to a potential legal challenge. He later added, “Doing this could end up undoing every discharge ordinance in the state of Vermont.”

Knauer’s report marks the third time in the last decade the selectboard has received a comprehensive document on the firearms ordinance. In 2009, a selectboard-appointed citizen taskforce recommended many changes, and seven years later, former police Chief Brad LaRose offered his own take.

The selectboard has put off action until now. Members initially hoped their facilitator would provide clear recommendations – a task Knauer made clear in her interview she wanted no part of.

The board’s goal eventually shifted, with chairman Max Levy telling The Reporter in March that members now expected Knauer to help them make an “informed decision.”

No doubt informative, Knauer’s 149-page report doesn’t suggest the board take a specific position, meaning members must now come to their own conclusion, knowing well they will be hard pressed to please both sides.