The Ledges

November, 2002

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VOTE on NOVEMBER 5 IS 495 TO 478
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Naturists Escalate Fight for the Ledges

by Bob Morton

By an extremely narrow margin, voters in the small southern Vermont town of Wilmington have refused to strike down an anti-nudity ordinance passed in June by the town's selectboard. The vote lets stand a ban that is aimed specifically at the Ledges, a traditional gathering spot for naturists on the shoreline of nearby Harriman Reservoir.

The balloting on August 27, in which "YES" meant overturning the ordinance and "NO" meant keeping it, resulted in a final tally of 289 NO votes to 282 YES votes.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Naturist Action Committee (NAC) placed large display advertising in the Deerfield Valley News and the Brattleboro Reformer, the two newspapers that serve Wilmington. The naturist focus was an appeal to the value Vermonters place on individual liberties. The advertising pointed out that the ordinance singles out women, but not men, for criminalization, should they choose to remove their shirts, and it noted that the ordinance places a prior restraint on performances, like Hair and Equus, that include nudity as integral parts of their messages.

From the beginning, the primary proponent of the ordinance has been builder Brian Palmiter, who is intent on creating a private and very exclusive residential development near the historic location of naturist use at the Ledges. Prevented by law from acquiring property on the actual shore of the reservoir, Palmiter has sought to provide his wealthy customers a private lakefront experience by ridding the shoreline of its only users - naturists.

Palmiter used his personal influence with members of the Wilmington selectboard to have the ordinance introduced and passed, and he subsequently financed local advertising that belittled the issue of freedom and called instead for the elimination of nudity as a moral imperative worthy of being imposed on others.

As NAC was encouraging voters to reject the ordinance, the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) had chosen a different approach. It was preparing to sue the town of Wilmington. The basis of the AANR lawsuit is twofold. First, it challenges the procedure by which the ordinance was adopted. Second, it questions the town's authority to pass such a measure, which it did by declaring public nudity to be a nuisance.

AANR's lawsuit was undertaken without consultation with NAC, and from NAC's point of view, the timing couldn't have been much worse. As voting day approached, sentiment in the small town seemed to be favoring the preservation of personal freedoms.
But when the lawsuit was filed and made public, just weeks short of the voting, a backlash became apparent, with a number of local residents vowing to side with the town against the attack by those they consider to be "outsiders."

By the time of the town meeting on the evening before the vote, sentiment against those "from away" was so firm that non-residents were forbidden to speak at the meeting.

Other possible factors have emerged in the inevitable post mortem of the Wilmington vote. Those include voter apathy - no other issue or candidate appeared on the ballot and fewer than a third of the town's registered voters bothered to mark a ballot. Also on the list of "what ifs" is talk that a local church congregation turned out en masse to sustain the ordinance.

But it came down to just four votes that could have been marked YES, but were marked NO instead.

Still reeling from that paper-thin margin, naturist activists took a second blow to the body when a similar ordinance received endorsement by a narrow margin in Hartford, Vermont, just two weeks later.

By a vote of 684 to 632, voters in Hartford voted on September 10 to retain that town's anti-nudity ordinance. As it had done in Wilmington, the Naturist Action Committee had campaigned vigorously in Hartford for disapproval of the measures.

Pausing only briefly to lick their wounds, naturists in both locations vowed to redouble their efforts to challenge the measures using a provision of Vermont law that allows citizens to demand a town vote to reconsider ordinances that already have the force of law. This is different from the previous challenges that sought to overturn the respective ordinances before they took effect.

While the methods being used to dislodge the two ordinances are similar, the circumstances leading to their beginnings are quite different. In Hartford, the impetus was opposition to the presence of the White River Amusement Pub (W.R.A.P.), an adult entertainment establishment featuring nude and scantily clad performers. The Hartford selectboard wanted the business eliminated, and in May, its members had passed a cookie-cutter anti-nudity ordinance initially developed by the National Family Legal Foundation and now promoted by its successor, the Alliance Defense Fund.

As in Wilmington, citizens in Hartford had forced the issue to the vote of the town by gathering signatures from a sufficient number of the town's registered voters. The Naturist Action Committee took an active role in the Hartford campaign, placing ads in the local newspaper that highlighted the erosion of liberties signaled by the adoption of the ordinance.

Before the vote in Hartford, the town manager attempted to blunt the legitimate objections from naturists by assuring the citizenry that the ordinance would never be applied to skinny-dipping, no matter how clearly the wording of the measure indicated otherwise. Such promises carry no legal weight, of course, and they certainly don't obligate those who succeed the current crop of town authorities. Nevertheless, some observers believe that the specious guarantee was enough to keep many potential voters from casting their ballots to preserve a personal freedom they had been assured would be untouched.

Meaningless or not, the assurances in Hartford that naturists were not the target stood in stark contrast to the sentiment in Wilmington, where there was never any question that naturist users of the Ledges were precisely the target.

Following the vote in Wilmington, police there issued three citations for nudity at the Ledges. One of the three who were cited was in a boat on the state-owned water of the reservoir, and not on the property of PG&E, the power company that owns the land surrounding the reservoir. The other two who were cited were from out of state and knew nothing of the new local ordinance.

Each of the three citations was accompanied by a one-year prohibition against setting foot on property owned by the power company. It remains unclear what authority the Wilmington police have to dispense such "no trespass" orders, or on whose directive they are doing it. The issuance of "no trespass" orders was never a part of the ordinance adopted by the selectboard or considered by the town's voters.

Adding to the puzzle is the fact that PG&E has remained indifferent to the matter of nudity at the Ledges and has never publicly sought expulsion for those who have used the land around the reservoir for nude recreation. In attempting to determine what might have changed, NAC has had to look no further than the influence that made the members of the Wilmington Selectboard scurry to adopt the same anti-nudity ordinance in June that they had refused to consider just a year earlier.

Developer Brian Palmiter is the only one who reasonably stands to benefit from the town's banishment of naturists from the Ledges. Palmiter ultimately desires more than the elimination of nudity on the lakefront property only a few hundred yards distant from his customers. He wants those homeowners to be given their own private lakefront experiences. Those cited for nudity might pay their fines while legally continuing to return. But a "no trespass" order is a year's worth of exile.

NAC is assessing a legal challenge to the dispensing of "no trespass" orders in Wilmington. Meanwhile, civil lawsuits have been filed in both the Wilmington and Hartford matters. The American Association for Nude Recreation is underwriting a suit in the Wilmington case, hoping a judge will accept its contention that the selectboard acted without proper process in adopting the ordinance and lacked authority to declare nudity to be a nuisance.

W.R.A.P., the adult business affected by Hartford's ordinance, has filed its own lawsuit challenging the validity of the measure. Enforcement of the Hartford ordinance has been forestalled, pending the disposition of the legal action.

The Naturist Action Committee is a party to neither suit, preferring instead to support local efforts to secure another vote in each town. Vermont law allows a once-yearly challenge to any existing town ordinance, provided that 5% of the town's registered voters sign a petition requesting a vote of the citizens.

Voters in both Wilmington and Hartford are coming to realize they were sold a bill of goods, and informal polling by NAC has indicated they are beginning to experience buyer's remorse. NAC Area Representative Phil Markham and other volunteers in Wilmington have already collected the required signatures in a door-to-door effort to force a vote. It seems likely that the votes in both locations will be scheduled to coincide with the general election on November 5.

According to Naturist Action Committee board member Morley Schloss, many voters stayed home from the polls for the initial vote, incorrectly believing there was no way the anti-nudity ordinances would be sustained.

Outlining the plan, Schloss said, "In each town, NAC will assist with an educational and get-out-the-vote campaign. On election day supportive voters will be reminded to vote and, if needed, given transportation to the polls."

Assessing the upcoming votes in Wilmington and Hartford, Schloss concludes, "There is no margin for apathy."

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