BRATTLEBORO—Zoning is not a particularly sexy topic, and most people don’t think about zoning regulations until something they don’t want is proposed for their neighborhood.
Planning Director Rod Francis and Planner Sue Fillion of the Brattleboro Planning Department want to change that.
Together with land use planning consultant Brandy Saxton of PlaceSense, a Port Henry, N.Y.-based firm, they are about to lead a multi-month blitz to make everyone in town aware of coming changes to the town’s land use regulations — the first big rewrite since the early 1980s.
“That’s why we’re being loud about it,” Fillion said.
The public outreach effort will begin on Thursday, Jan. 22, with an open house from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Marlboro College Graduate Center, 28 Vernon St.
Following the open house, there will be a more formal kick-off presentation, starting at 7 p.m. at the Graduate Center. The presentation will summarize the intent of the proposed revisions and will include a virtual walking tour along selected corridors to explain some of the proposed changes.
The outreach effort continues with two sessions on Friday, Jan. 23. At 8 a.m. there will be a breakfast meeting at the Graduate Center oriented toward real estate and land development professionals that will delve deeper into the proposed regulations.
At noon on Friday, Jan. 23, there will be a brown bag lunch at Brooks Memorial Library focused on the historic and natural resource protection, energy, and agricultural aspects of the proposed regulations.
On Saturday, Jan. 24, representatives will be available to answer questions and distribute informational materials from a table at the Farmers’ Market in the River Garden between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Francis said the town Planning Commission has been working since April 2014 on the new zoning regulations. Some elements of the old regulations have been retained, and the general borders of the zoning districts have mostly stayed the same.
“We knew that when we updated the Town Plan (in 2013), we needed to make changes in the zoning regulations,” he said. “A lot has changed with state statutes as well as people’s expectations.”
“Mostly, it’s making the technical standards more contemporary,” Fillion added.
The biggest changes, Francis said, include reducing the number of zoning districts on the Putney Road corridor from the Veterans Memorial Bridge north to the Dummerston town line from nine districts to three.
A new Water and Recreation District, near the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers, would allow some residential development as well as recreation use.
New “Neighborhood Districts” have been created in West Brattleboro, and on Canal Street near Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
Francis said these changes would have happened sooner, but the devastation caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 forced the town to not only put aside work on a new town plan but also to revisit conventions related to land use.
“With storms like Irene, planning for resilience to climate change has become an new important element,” he said. “We are one of the first communities in the state to do a land use review since Irene.”
Besides building resiliency into current and future land use, Francis said that citizen feedback during the drafting of the revised Town Plan by the Planning Commission made it clear that residents wanted to protect open land, promote walkable neighborhoods, and encourage agriculture and appropriately scaled businesses.
“The town’s traditional neighborhoods are all east of Interstate 91, and they are all eminently walkable,” Francis said. “The population size of Brattleboro has not changed over the past 50 years, but the uses of the land certainly have.”
Francis said a second series of events will be held on Feb. 5 through 7, including another open house on Feb. 5, between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., at the River Garden and a meeting focused on the proposed zoning changes in and around downtown at 7 that evening, at a location to be announced.
“We hope these events get people up to speed on the changes,” he said. “We expect to be talking about this for the next few months.”
Once the public’s feedback has been gathered, it will be time for the Planning Commission to deliver the final version to the Selectboard for final approval. Francis said he hopes that will happen by May.