Pam Loranger was in the Colchester town offices last month on business for the Cemetery Advisory Committee when planning and zoning director Sarah Hadd flagged her down.
Loranger, 64, didn’t think much of the thick envelope Hadd and town manager Dawn Francis handed over. As a member of numerous local boards and organizations, including chairwoman of the planning commission, she’s used to sorting through stacks of paper. But the contents of this packet stopped her cold.
“I was stunned,” Loranger said. “I was literally speechless.”
Inside, a letter from the Vermont Planners Association announced Loranger as the 2017 Citizen Planner of the Year. Hadd and Francis, both recipients of VPA awards in prior contests, asked her to join them at a statehouse ceremony the following week.
The annual awards recognize “outstanding achievement” in community planning, according to a VPA press release. That includes folks working on local, regional and state levels both in volunteer and professional capacities.
“I have the honor and privilege of having the best planning commission chair in the state of Vermont,” Hadd’s nomination letter begins.
Hadd listed the other local groups and initiatives to which Loranger has applied her “steadfast hand,” including the conservation commission, governance committee, historical society, cemetery advisory committee, Colchester Blooms, Green Up Day, Malletts Bay Initiative, Community Center Initiative, the town plan and the stormwater advisory committee, among many others.
Planner Karen Purinton, who first put forth Loranger’s name, lauded her grace, compassion and institutional knowledge. Praises also came from selectman Tom Mulcahy and governance committee chairman David Usher.
Those letters, Loranger said, will remain treasured keepsakes for life.
“The nature of our business is community facilitation,” Hadd said. “The process doesn’t work without volunteers in the community stepping up and doing what can often be a thankless job.”
The path to such civil servitude was a unique one for Loranger. A Montpelier native, she made a “pit stop” in Burlington before moving to a house on Mills Point with her husband, Albert, in 1996. Together, the couple continues to run Preston Property Management.
“All good folks end up in Colchester,” she quipped with a grin.
But Loranger said their new home quickly became embroiled in “septic wars” when town officials began enforcement action on residents living year-round in properties zoned just for seasonal use. They fought back, prompting a costly legal battle that eventually wound up in environmental court.
“I was incensed,” Loranger said. “I was crazed with the town because, to me, it could have been settled right at the [planning and zoning] level.”
When the dust settled, Loranger decided to reexamine the conflict, hoping to find out why events unfolded in such a way and how to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
So, Loranger said, she stopped casting dispersions from outside town hall and started going to local meetings, studying the workings of municipal government up close.
“I was a student of the town,” Loranger said. “Every opportunity I found to learn more, I signed up.”
First a dedicated attendee, Loranger soon left her chair in the audience and joined the conservation commission. One thing led to another, and soon she found herself juggling seats on multiple boards.
She joked her husband now answers calls with a disclaimer: “Pam’s phone, she’s at a meeting.”
The devoted volunteer, who hasn’t taken a vacation since her honeymoon, credits her service to an atypically flexible business schedule and a desire to see projects through to completion. But Hadd noted Loranger does more than just show up.
“She has turned people around, listened intently to what people have to say and helped dissect really these thorny issues,” Hadd said. “[She let’s] them feel like they’re heard.”
Loranger admitted she often holds personal opinions on the topics before her committees, but tries to put them aside and listen to all voices before making a final decision. She often employs the idiom “walk a mile in my shoes.”
“Everybody that comes to a meeting has their own shoes, has their own story, has something to bring to the table,” Loranger said. “So many times you hear something you never thought of before from the oddest corner.”
One of her favorite projects was with a firearms safety committee, organized to provide clearer boundaries and regulations. At least 20 residents were present at each meeting, she said, working together to solve a finite problem.
Loranger said ongoing discussions about big town projects, like the proposed community center at Bayside Park, present a rare opportunity for citizens living in distinct sections of Colchester to work together.
“If you want people to invest in us, we should invest in our town,” Loranger said. “Show up at a meeting … There’s always room for more.”