BRATTLEBORO—Members of the all-volunteer Planning Commission, working with the Town Planners, are getting ready to roll out the 2018 Town Plan.
The commissioners will hold a public hearing on March 19, and they encourage townspeople to attend and offer their feedback on the draft document.
A Town Plan serves “as the policy document to guide municipal decisions related to land use and development regulations, environmental protection, the provision of municipal facilities and services, strategies for economic development, and the quality of life desired by the community,” according to information provided by the Planning Commission.
Brattleboro’s first Town Plan was created in 1963. The town got a “brand spanking new” plan in 2013, said Planning Commission Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin. Like most updates, that one took “a lot of work,” and included a great deal of public input, coming from focus groups and meetings, McLoughlin said.
The 2013 update, which was the first major overhaul in 20 years, won the 2014 “Plan of the Year” award from the Vermont Planners Association.
Most Vermont municipalities have a Town Plan, and, according to statute, they must revise the document every five years. But there are times when a town must update the plan more frequently to reflect state regulation changes, or when some major occurrence takes place, such as a natural disaster, that could affect a town’s operations.
Although, according to the schedule, Brattleboro’s Town Plan didn’t need an update until this year, it was revised in 2015 to conform with changes in state statute regarding village center designations.
Several months of work
“We’re really happy with the 2013 and 2015 Town Plans and we don’t think there are major changes in the new one,” said Planning Director Rod Francis.
The 2018 updates took several months of work, including many changes to data, said Sue Fillion, planner in Brattleboro’s Planning Services department. But most readers won’t notice “an appreciable change,” she said.
According to Fillion, most of the major edits in the revised Town Plan identify work the town has already done since the 2015 version, such as the overhaul of the town’s zoning regulations. “Before that,” said Fillion, “there were inconsistencies between zoning [regulations] and the Town Plan.”
“Now they mesh, and are modern,” McLoughlin noted.
Another change made in the past few years that is reflected in the updated Town Plan is the town’s planning for flood resiliency. “Now it’s codified to match state law,” said Fillion.
Other chapters getting “tweaks,” said McLoughlin, include those addressing the arts and historic preservation in town.
Francis pointed out another new addition to the 2018 Town Plan. State regulations require the documents “to address contiguous forested areas,” Francis said. This is “mostly because of wildlife habitat being fragmented and vulnerable” with the breaking up of wooded areas, he said.
Additional changes to the document include the chapters on the town’s comprehensive energy plan and how it’s affected by Act 174, the 2016 state statute covering the siting of energy projects.
Francis explained that the new Plan demonstrates the town’s commitment to achieving the goals addressed in the legislation, and will include Brattleboro’s participation in the new net-metered solar array at the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s capped landfill on Old Ferry Road.
“Brattleboro does well with renewable energy,” Francis noted.
Although many of the Town Plan’s chapters will prove most relevant to developers and planners, one addition McLoughlin believes will have mass appeal is the information on the parking study. Fillion said they are awaiting results from the study, but McLoughlin said she is certain it will reflect “issues people have with parking in town.”
“Different slices of the community use the Town Plan in different ways,” said Francis. “Not many people will read it cover to cover.” But, for newcomers, “it really provides a wealth of information,” McLoughlin said.
Commission seeks input
Members of the Planning Department and the Planning Commission want public input.
“The purpose of the public hearing,” on March 19, Francis said, “is for people to check in with the draft and provide comment.” Fillion invited townspeople to contact her directly, too, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-251-8112.
But that’s not the only opportunity townspeople will have to submit feedback.
Once the Planning Commission receives public comment and makes any resulting changes to the document, they then submit the draft to the Selectboard. The Selectboard holds two of its own hearings, which will be warned, before it votes on adopting the 2018 Town Plan.
After the Selectboard adopts the Town Plan, it then goes to the Windham Regional Commission for their approval, Francis explained.
Francis noted that having a Town Plan allows the town to maintain its downtown designation and West Brattleboro’s Village Center designation for the next eight years, and gives Brattleboro access to grants. Nonprofits also reference the document when writing grants, Fillion said.
McLoughlin, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, shared her belief that “Vermont is changing. ... Before, everyone knew their neighbors, so a lot of planning happened by handshake.” Now, she said, “Town Plans are more necessary as we’re more settled.”