On May 11, 2022

Vermont gets another city, but the town-hopping 251 Club keeps its name

By Jack Lyons/VTDigger

Since 1954, the 251 Club has been a collective for people who endeavor to visit all of Vermont’s 251 cities, towns and unincorporated communities.

But last month, the club faced an unprecedented consideration: On July 1, Vermont will add the city of Essex Junction to its ranks when the village splits away from Essex Town. That means — for the first time since the organization’s founding — the Green Mountain State will include not 251 official communities, but 252.

So how will the club’s roughly 4,700 members, who seek to walk around, snap pictures of or paddle in all of Vermont’s communities, refer to the group that binds them together?

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Perhaps befitting a club that professes to “have no rules” — even declining to define what it means to “visit” a town — the organization will not change its name when Essex Junction’s charter takes effect on July 1, said Stephanie Young, its executive director.

“I really think it’s important to keep the name that is well-recognized,” Young said.

The club’s board unanimously decided to keep its name during a remote meeting in November 2021, according to Young.

Despite its lack of bylaws, the organization accords “Plus” status to members who say they’ve been to each of the state’s 251 official communities. And starting in July, new members will have to add Essex Junction to their lists, though existing members can still achieve the title without going to Vermont’s newest city, Young said.

George Hooker, president of the group’s board, foresaw the notion of a 252nd official community months before it became a reality. His son lives in Essex Junction, and he received consistent updates on the village’s journey toward becoming an independent city.

Residents of Essex Junction voted to break off from the town of Essex in November 2021, the first successful attempt to change how the jurisdictions were governed after decades of debate. Proponents of the split saw the decades-old system as unfairly burdening Essex Junction residents, who would pay taxes to both the village and town for services that each provided. Town residents, meanwhile, paid taxes only to the town government.

State legislators gave their blessing to the breakup by advancing a bill this year that chartered the new city. Gov. Phil Scott signed that legislation last month.

Hooker, like Young, believed the group should keep its name for the sake of consistency.

“After a bunch of discussion we realized, ‘We’ve been in existence for 68 years. Everybody knows us as the 251 Club. You change it now, it’s going to result in confusion,’” he said, then mused: “Maybe a little bit of notoriety for a while as a piece of trivia.”

But the impending reality that the 251 Club will soon consist of members trying to visit 252 places sort of fits the group’s quirky character, its leaders said.

“It just kind of adds to the charm of the club,” Hooker said of the not-quite-accurate name.

The sum doesn’t include the state’s many villages — such as Essex Junction is now — nor its three gores and one grant (spaces in between chartered communities where there is no formal government). But club members like to visit those places anyway, even if they’re not part of the tally, Young said, meaning the 251 name already encompasses more than it suggests.

Furthermore, keeping the name at 251 avoids the volatility that could come with future map adjustments, Young said. While none of the current “Plus” members have to visit Essex Junction after it becomes a city this summer to maintain their status, Hooker thinks many of them probably will.

“A lot of people have actually done the 251 two or three times over,” the retired biology teacher said.

Hooker and his wife, state Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, are about two-thirds of the way through the list of 251. Young and her family have knocked off 176. But neither sees the competition as a race to complete as quickly as possible.

“I’m not in a huge rush to finish, to become a Plus member,” Hooker told VTDigger. “I figure it’ll happen eventually.”

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