Ruby Frithsen and Sidney Curven

Laurie Kaiser / Sentinel Staff

Fall Mountain sophomores Ruby Frithsen, left, and Sidney Curven answer questions from the audience about their proposed plastic-bag ban during Walpole’s annual town meeting Saturday at town hall. Behind them is longtime moderator Ernest Vose, who would be stepping down after 18 years.

WALPOLE — Residents at Saturday’s town meeting voted in favor of an ordinance banning the sale or distribution of single-use plastic bags and approved a measure to install state-of-the-art high-speed Internet service throughout town.

Nearly 140 residents attended the meeting at town hall, despite the coronavirus threat. “This is wonderful to see such a full house today,” said selectboard member Peggy Pschirrer. “We were worried.”

Residents completed all business within two hours under the direction of Ernest Vose, who is stepping down this year after serving 18 as town moderator.

The proposal to ban single-use plastic bags was brought before town meeting by citizen petition. Fall Mountain High School sophomores Sidney Curven and Ruby Frithsen spearheaded the effort, gathering 160 signatures.

Curven and Frithsen urged residents to make this change to improve the environment for future generations. Of the billions of single-use plastic bags American shoppers use annually, they said, only one percent are recycled.

Walpole’s ban on plastic bags will go into effect in one year, allowing merchants time to make the switch. Many Walpole merchants use paper bags, Curven said, “so making the switch will not harm them.”

Thin-film plastic bags eventually become microplastics, which have been found in beach sand, the ocean (and also commercial sea salt), farm fields — even the air. Studies have shown that not only animals but also humans are likely ingesting these particles.

“We are really at a tipping point,” Frithsen said.

But one Walpole resident offered another perspective, saying these bags present a sanitary alternative to reusable cloth or cellulose, which are seldom washed. Leroy Watson said this is something we need to be thinking about in the presence of the coronavirus.

“We have a heightened attention to hygiene,” Watson said. “These bags give us an option to reuse them and give us a more hygienic option.”

A majority of residents at town meeting, however, approved the plastic-bag ban by voice vote. Curven and Frithsen were pleased with the outcome. “This is the right thing to do,” Curven said.

In other business, town-meeting voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to install a fiber-to-the-premises network that would bring the option for high-speed Internet service to every residence and business in town.

By a paper-ballot vote of 135 to two, residents said yes to raising and appropriating some $3.2 million for fiber-optic service, joining several other Cheshire County towns buying into high-speed Internet. Some residents attended town meeting just for this vote. About 25 left the session immediately after casting ballots.

Nearly $1.4 million of the total cost of this project will be donated by the provider, Consolidated Communications, according to the warrant. Town officials said the remainder will be paid for through a $9 user fee, which would be applied to the monthly bill of those who opt for the service. The new service isn’t mandatory, officials said; residents can choose to keep their current Internet service. Work on the fiber-optic project is expected to begin in the fall.

Residents also approved an article, brought by citizen petition, urging the selectboard to write a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require owners of the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams to modify current dam operations to minimize peaking and to commit funding for riverbank restoration. Residents would like to see a shoreline-management plan to prevent erosion. They also want FERC to require current and subsequent owners of the dam to commit funding for possible property-owner compensation for damage resulting from riverbank deterioration.

All 12 articles before town meeting won approval. Besides the plastic-bag ban, high-speed Internet and dam control, residents voted to raise and appropriate nearly $4.7 million for the town’s operating expenses, about a 3.8 percent increase over the budget voters approved last year.

They also funded $200,000 for updates, repairs and remodeling of town buildings; $130,000 to purchase a truck for the highway department; $38,000 to purchase a vehicle for the police department, along with $15,000 to outfit it with a cage, console and other equipment; $39,000 for the purchase of six Motorola Dual Band portable radios; and $20,000 for a study to determine if the town needs a new police station.