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Christopher Campany, current executive director of the Windham Regional Commission.

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Planning today for tomorrow's growth

Windham Regional Commission celebrates 50 years of going deep on the big issues facing the region

BRATTLEBORO—What do Youth Services, Vermont Yankee, the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, and Act 250 have in common?

At one time, they were the projects no one tackled. And then, they were tackled by the Windham Regional Commission (WRC).

Founded in 1965 as the first regional commission in Vermont, the WRC celebrated its half-century with 150 guests at a June 23 gala.

Guests crammed into The Stephen and Nita Lowey International Center at the School for International Training, drinks in one hand, canapés in the other.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said in opening comments, “It’s all the little things the Windham Regional Commission does that make our lives livable.”

Shumlin told the saga of visitors to Vermont who brave traffic jams and city smog to find the gorgeous rolling landscape of their “Ver-shangra-la-mont.”

Once in the Green Mountains, these brave knights of the rat race fill their car trunks to the brim with fresh produce and line up for cases of Heady Topper, the double India Pale Ale beloved by craft brew aficionados and unobtainable outside of Vermont.

They watch the regal emerald Vermont landscape recede in their rear-view mirror as they drive back to their paltry princedoms, he said. Home again, these poor souls call their friends to come share their Heady Topper.

“And it lifts up their miserable lives because they don’t live in Vermont,” Shumlin said.

Constructing the frameworks that protect what Vermonters hold precious in their environment, towns, and communities has often fallen to a small staff and legion of volunteers at the WRC.

Historian, former teacher, staff member, and planner Greg Brown wrote the commemorative history booklet for the commission’s 25th and 50th anniversaries.

“How do you talk about a 50-year history of an organization like this one?” he said.

The commission touches all aspects of community life in the 27 towns it serves from social programs, to land use planning, to economic studies, to advocating for Windham County before the Public Service Board’s hearings on Vermont Yankee.

“This is where you want to be,” Brown added. “This is where things happen in Vermont.”

In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the WRC was the county-wide organization prepared with the information, volunteer force, and foresight to coordinate the early days of recovery.

Current Executive Director Christopher Campany describes the commission as a government agency without decision making authority.

The commission’s biggest role, he added, is getting people to talk to each other.

Associate Director Susan McMahon, described the work of WRC planners as “planner therapists,” ready to listen to towns and help them find resources.

This is the organization that takes on the unwanted projects, she said.

Early days and setting foundations for big programs

Bill Schmidt, the WRC’s first executive director, laughed saying that until 1963, Vermont had more cows than people.

In the decades between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the start of the Space Age nearly a century later, Vermont saw virtually no population growth and little economic growth.

That changed in the 1960s, with the construction of Interstate 91. It brought Vermont more ski areas, more second homes, and more money, he said.

The state changed, and these changes brought a boom, but also threatened a bust, said Schmidt, who served the commission until 1983.

Before the 1960s, Vermont had little to no planning or land use zoning, he said.

Building developments and the start of sprawl signaled the need for planning the state’s land use. Economic challenges spurred changes in the education sector, human resources, housing, and transportation, Schmidt said.

Phil Hoff, the first Democrat elected as governor of Vermont in more than a century, launched an initiative for local and statewide planning after he won his first term in 1962.

In 1964, in conjunction with a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, Hoff persuaded the Legislature to appropriate monies to create regional planning commissions.

By March 1965, 17 of Windham County’s towns approved the state’s first commission, the WRC.

According to Brown’s history, only Brattleboro had a town plan at this time. The only towns with zoning bylaws were Brattleboro, Bellows Falls village, and Marlboro.

Work by the WRC, other agencies, and a Republican governor lead to the creation of Vermont’s landmark land-use permitting system, Act 250.

Schmidt said he still remembers when newly-elected Republican Governor Deane Davis visited the region in 1969.

Davis traveled with Schmidt and others to the Deerfield Valley. Whitingham, Wilmington, and Dover were in the middle of a building explosion, said Schmidt.

The governor’s eyes bulged at the lack of planning at housing developments, such as the valley’s 1,100-acre Chimney Hill and the 4,000-acre Dover Hill, remembered Schmidt.

According to Schmidt, Davis looked at the houses densely stacked like billy goats up steep slopes and asked where’s their water coming from? Where is their sewage draining to? How will emergency vehicles get up these roads?

In the WRC’s 50th history booklet, Schmidt writes that “Governor Davis learned that some subdivision lots were a quarter to half acre in size on 10 - 15 degree slopes, that water was promised to lot buyers in some subdivisions but no water source was identified, that on-site septic was resulting in sewage overflow on steep slopes, that some subdivision roads could not accommodate fire trucks or school buses, that development on high elevation sites had significant ecological impacts, that town services and officials were overwhelmed by developers’ demands on them, and much more.”

Davis’ administration quickly imposed emergency health rules at a number of the housing developments due to concerns around septic systems, Schmidt said.

Approximately two weeks after his visit, the governor told the commission that environmental control and land development protection were his administration’s priority number one.

Nine months later, Act 250 was born. Over the next four years, different phases of the law were adopted.

Work in unexpected places

The commission’s work in the community was holistic, focusing on multiple areas from economic development, to building, to human services.

Schmidt remembers the role the WRC played in asking for safeguards around the state’s first — and only — nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee.

The commission approved of the plant’s construction, he said.

In the 1970s, the commission provided staffing and administrative help to launch the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, he said.

Youth Services, now an independent organization, grew from a crime-prevention program the commission developed from 1969 to 1971, Schmidt said.

The commission launched the program because in the 1970s, Windham County was “known as the drug capital of Vermont,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the regional commission also launched and ran the Council on Aging from 1973 until the organization became independent in the late 1990s.

When asked what he thought of the commission’s work today, Schmidt shook his head.

“I don’t know how they can keep doing more,” he said.

The community’s needs continue to increase in level and complexity, Schmidt said. It’s tougher work than when he was the executive director.

Relationships, and moving beyond boundaries

The towns served by the WRC are extremely diverse for a small county, said Campany, the WRC’s fifth executive director in 50 years.

“Each has its own personality,” he said.

Communities may be about a geographic location, said Campany. But they are ultimately about people and relationships.

Campany told the audience that the county faces challenges.

“It’s not sexy stuff,” he admits, in describing most of the commission’s work.

Preserving what we treasure about Vermont, however, requires that communities collaborate on planning their futures, he said.

The population is aging, he said.

Also, only a minority of the income earned in this county comes from the county, Campany continued. It’s hard to expand economic development in a community where most of the people are not reliant on the local economy.

Windham County must look beyond it’ own boundaries, he continued. The area has a stake in the well-being of its neighbors, especially in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, because these communities share a job market with Windham County.

With the elimination of special federal appropriations, all communities now compete for funds on the same national playing field, he said.

“Our future is in our own hands,” Campany said. “We’re not going to wait for Montpelier to do something, we’re going to drive the bus.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #313 (Wednesday, July 8, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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