Politics

Burlington to immediately disperse Sears Lane residents despite councilors’ pleas

Steve Marshall, a resident of the Sears Lane encampment in Burlington, helps load trash in a dumpster at the site on Oct. 19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VT Digger

BURLINGTON — City officials stayed the course on the Tuesday closure of the Sears Lane encampment at Monday’s City Council meeting, despite opposition from Progressive councilors. 

Councilors clashed over a proposed resolution that would have called on Mayor Miro Weinberger to allow the South End encampment to “safely continue” and to rely on funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide campers with “food, water, warmth and rest.”

However, an amendment introduced by Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, retracted the resolution’s call to halt the camp’s disbandment. Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, broke ranks with her party and voted for the amendment in what she later called a “misunderstanding.” 

Instead of denouncing the camp’s closure, the amended resolution ended up advocating that the mayor give campers time “to complete their housing plan.” It passed unanimously. 

The resolution — which was sponsored by Joe Magee, P-Ward 3 — was deemed an advisory one by City Attorney Dan Richardson, meaning it would not have compelled the mayor to reverse his decision.

The city notified residents of the encampment that anyone left on the site after 9 a.m. Tuesday could face trespass citations. In an announcement that preceded Dieng’s amendment, Weinberger said the order won’t be enforced for the handful of residents who are “working with the city in good faith and have a housing plan.”

The city has obtained funds from the state Department of Children and Families to help find temporary housing for campers who want it and to store residents’ belongings for 30 days.

Officials and councilors on both sides of the issue said Monday night that whether or not the Sears Lane camp remains open is a matter of life and death. 

While introducing the resolution, Magee said the temporary relief provided by the city was insufficient and that residents of the camp should be allowed to stay in the dwellings they’ve constructed for the winter. 

But Democratic Councilor Chip Mason, whose Ward 5 encompasses the Sears Lane camp, drew attention to conditions in the camp that he called dangerous, such as dwellings that brazenly violate housing codes.

“I shudder every time I walk by there at the conditions that I’m seeing and the fear that someone’s going to get very, very hurt,” Mason said. 

During debate over the resolution, Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke spoke to councilors bluntly.

“We will have a fatal fire down there this winter” if the camp remains open, Locke said.  

But other councilors challenged that prediction, saying that investments in the camp could make it safer without removing campers from their current shelters. 

Progressive city councilors huddle around Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, after she voted to support an amendment by Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, that softened a rebuke of Mayor Miro Weinberger’s decision to close the Sears Lane encampment. Hightower later called the vote a “misunderstanding.” Photo by Jack Lyons/VTDigger

Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District, pointed to the council’s actions earlier in the meeting when councilors allocated more than $260,000 in federal funds to services aiding those without housing.

“Clearly we have the ability. We have the resources to better support people,” Hanson said. 

A request by the city late last month asking local nonprofits to install safety features at the camp failed after no nonprofits stepped forward. 

Weinberger first ordered campers to leave the site by Oct. 19 after two residents were arrested: one for allegedly dealing drugs and the other for allegedly pointing a gun at firefighters responding to a medical emergency. 

But Weinberger extended the initial deadline to Oct. 26 after an outcry against his action and allegations that the city had violated its policies. City officials also pledged to store residents’ belongings and — with funds from the state Department of Children and Families — work with local nonprofits to relocate the campers. 

Last week, two Sears Lane residents filed a lawsuit against the city in Chittenden Superior Court in an effort to stop the camp closure. And while Judge Samuel Hoar gave Burlington permission to remove residents for now, a hearing on the case is scheduled for Thursday. 

Social workers say it’s hard to gauge how many people live at Sears Lane since the camp’s population fluctuates, but staff from the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity have made contact with nearly all residents, and most of them have accepted the city’s help finding a new place to live, said Paul Dragon, the organization’s executive director.

Using the state funds, the organization will help nine campers move into hotel rooms and three move into recreational vehicles, Dragon said. Twelve more are strongly considering the offer of a hotel room, two are accepting funds to move out of state and three to five more have declined the city’s services. 

Those staying in hotels will not be part of the state’s General Assistance Program, Dragon said. 

Some of those efforts to rehouse people won’t take place immediately, which is why the mayor has said the trespass order won’t be enforced for those who still need time to carry out their rehousing plans, Dragon said. 

Despite working with the city to facilitate the clearing of the encampment, Dragon seemed to indicate that he didn’t agree with the mayor’s decision. 

“People should be able to stay,” Dragon said. “It’s not that I don’t have empathy for the city, for the neighbors, for the businesses. I certainly do. Our position has been: We can help deliver services there. We can help people self-organize.” 

In an interview, Weinberger denied that Dragon disagreed with him, saying Dragon was only referring to campers being allowed to stay for the immediate period when his organization couldn’t yet procure housing for them. 

More than a dozen people turned out at Monday’s meeting to support Magee’s resolution, with some criticizing the city’s removal of the camp as “cruel.” Roughly five others — all of whom either worked or lived near Sears Lane — spoke in support of the mayor’s decision, saying that crime and disturbances from the camp have recently become unbearable.

Other business

In other business Monday night, the council voted to:

  • Move forward with a plan to build a new Chittenden Solid Waste District Drop-Off Center on Flynn Avenue, replacing the current one on Pine Street. The plan requires Burlington first to purchase the land from the solid waste district through a lease-to-own deal. 

    The action taken by the council Monday night extended an option-to-buy agreement between the city and the district, giving officials more time to negotiate a purchase deal. The council is expected to vote on finalized terms for the purchase in January.  
  • Ask a state agency to shift its Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to include the lowest two blocks of Main Street (from Pine Street to the intersection with Battery Street). 

    A so-called TIF district aims to spur development in cities and towns through infrastructure upgrades, which serve to increase the municipality’s tax revenue. 

    Burlington has a limited amount of time to start projects on its Downtown TIF district and has asked the state to change where it can do those projects to get more done during that time. 
  • Allocate $1 million to the city’s Parking and Traffic Division to offset losses incurred during fiscal 2020 because of the pandemic.

Clarification: This story has been updated to describe more precisely possible actions the city may take regarding individuals who remain at the encampment after Tuesday’s deadline. They could face trespass citations.

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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