ST. ALBANS TOWN – St. Albans Town may take up a smoking ban in its parks, a reversal from last year when the town’s selectboard rejected a smoking ban in lieu of signage discouraging tobacco use in town parks.
The selectboard discussed such a ban during its regular meeting Monday night, when the board, thinned to three members, touched on possible updates to its parks ordinance.
“Last year we kind of pushed around ideas that we needed to update this, but we never actually finished those updates,” town manager Carrie Johnson explained, introducing the ordinance to the present board members.
Those updates ran from whether the town would allow year-round access to its Town Forest – a 162-acre forest off French Hill Road with public trails – to cleaning up language formally banning hunting in that forest.
Likely the most controversial of its decisions regarding the ordinance was the possible inclusion of a smoking ban in town parks, an inclusion that the town’s parks committee supported strongly according to its chair, selectperson Jessica Frost.
“It’s promoting healthy parks, allowing anybody who accesses our parks to have smoke-free air,” Frost said, arguing in favor of a ban for both health reasons and environmental reasons, as cigarette butts were often found as litter in the parks and along their abutting shorelines with St. Albans Bay.
“Not only is it healthy for us breathing in secondhand smoke or for the smoker, but it’s also going right into the waterways, and those filters don’t break down,” Frost said. “I’m all for this change, and I would say everybody on the parks committee is as well.”
While no formal decision was issued on the parks ordinance, a quorum of the board appeared to support including the ban.
Including a smoking ban in the town’s park ordinance would be a reversal from the selectboard’s previous defeat of a smoking ban in its parks during a regular meeting exactly one year ago today.
At the time, then-selectboard chair Bill Nihan argued a smoking ban would be difficult to enforce and dismissed it as a possible legislative overreach, invoking “Big Brother” comparisons.
Instead, at the time, the board promoted signage for the parks discouraging smoking, something the current selectboard chair, Brendan Deso, said wasn’t working.
“We made an effort as a board last year… to discourage the use of tobacco products in the park,” Deso, who was a member of the selectboard when it first considered a ban, said. “While I wasn’t able to attend Green Up Day in the park this year, I did hear that cigarette litter was still something that was an issue.”
Selectperson Al Voegele asked whether or not a smoking ban would be fair to those “chronically addicted” to cigarettes. “Do we need a spot for those who are chronically addicted?” he asked.
Amy Brewer, a health educator from Northwestern Medical Center who helped the parks committee draft the proposed smoking ban, answered that, for “adults who smoke in particular, this is not new to them – having increasingly less places.”
“It’s a kind question,” Brewer said. “[But] the challenge is that it doesn’t help with the butt litter and there’s still an area where people are exposed to the products secondhand.”
“I think we can just word it very kindly – if you need to use the product and you’re going to be here for a length of time where you’ll need to use the product in the middle, you could just step out and come back,” Brewer advised. “We don’t want anybody to not use the parks – we just want those parks to be really healthy environments.”
The ordinance would include “tobacco and tobacco-substitute products,” like e-cigarettes, according to Johnson.
The selectboard agreed they wouldn’t vote on the ordinance’s adoption until June 3, allowing members to review language in the updated parks ordinance ahead of a vote.
An updated draft of the town’s parks ordinance cleans up language formally banning hunting in the Town Forest and suggests making access to the forest seasonal, hinging that access on the first snowfall of the winter season.
Closing the forest for the winter was primarily a safety concern, as the town’s public works department would struggle with maintaining the class four gravel road leading toward the forest.
Still, the board looked to possibly fix that some day in the future.
“I would say, especially with the investment in the trail system up there, I would say we should look at how we can keep it open year-round,” Frost said.
In the meantime, she said supported current language in the ordinance draft closing the park after its first snowfall rather than setting a specific date. That would keep it open later into the year if there was a late winter, Frost suggested. “If you can get up there, why close it?”
The town’s current parks ordinance has conflicting language about permitting hunting in the forest, according to town manager Johnson.
Hunting does happen near the forest, according to the town’s public works director Alan Mashtare, who told the selectboard he found several deer and turkey carcasses around the forest.
The board didn’t suggest any changes to the updates proposed in the ordinance for the Town Forest.
The town also reaffirmed its commitment to not renting slips out on its dock, both because of noncompliance with the American Disabilities Act and because the town wasn’t interested in competing with the nearby St. Albans Bay Marina.
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