BRATTLEBORO—There was a changing of the guard in early July in the town’s Planning Office. The same day long-time director Rod Francis departed for a new job in Norwich, Sue Fillion took over.
Fillion was appointed as planning director by Town Manager Peter Elwell after an interview with a panel including Elwell, Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor, Planning Commission Chair Liz McLoughlin, and Development Review Board Chair James Valente.
In a news release announcing Fillion’s promotion, Elwell noted the members of the interview panel unanimously supported the hiring of Fillion as planning director.
“Sue was the lead staff person both for our award-winning Town Plan in 2013 and for the outstanding update of our land-use regulations in 2015,” Elwell said. “She is smart, effective, and an excellent representative of the Town in our relationships with other organizations and officials.”
Originally from Connecticut, Fillion came to this area to study geography at Keene State College. Her initial goal was to become a teacher, but after some urban geography classes and a senior-year internship in the planning department of Milford, Connecticut, Fillion changed her trajectory.
A career in planning
After working with a tour company for a few years out of college, Fillion wanted a career. She was hired as assistant town planner in Merrimack, N.H., and worked there for three years.
“It was entry-level zoning and planning,” she said, and the job gave her exposure to master planning, staffing boards and committees, and answering residents’ questions about zoning. “That was a great experience,” Fillion said.
In the early-2000s, Fillion and her fiance (now husband) moved to Walpole, N.H., so he could be closer to his new job in Bellows Falls. They knew they loved the area and wanted to settle here. In 2003 she was hired as a regional planner at the Windham Regional Commission, and began working in Brattleboro’s planning department in September 2009.
“We are fortunate to have someone so capable right here on our team and ready to provide a smooth transition,” Elwell said.
Likewise, Fillion described her first few weeks as planning director as “pretty seamless, so far."
“I’m really working on a lot of the same projects Rod was working on,” she said.
Fillion discussed some of her tasks.
One is getting stormwater permits up-to-date for Quails Hill Road, and Fillion secured some grant funding to hire a consultant to help with the applications.
She is working with the Vermont River Conservancy on the parcel at 250 Birge Street. The phased project involves restoring the floodplain and eventually turning it into a public park.
The first portion, Fillion said, should be complete by spring 2019, “but it depends on the funding to clean up the brownfield at the site,” she said.
Fillion continues to operate the town’s brownfields program, and has secured funding for assessments and clean-up planning. She’s actively seeking more opportunities. “We’re still looking for sites. People can contact me to talk about the programs and resources,” Fillion said.
Another project Fillion is supporting is the Conservation Commission’s work identifying and controlling the invasive plant Japanese knotweed using mechanical — not chemical — methods.
“Since May, they’ve been at the West River Park trying to control it so people can enjoy access to the riverbank, and they need more volunteers,” Fillion said.
She recommended to the public a series of films the commission made to help people identify and remove Japanese knotweed. The films are available at www.brattleborotv.org/brattleboro-conservation-commission/introduction-japanese-knotweed.
Fillion mentioned upcoming work, including minor revisions to the zoning bylaws, specifically addressing land-use regulations.
With the Planning Commission, Fillion is exploring whether they want to participate in the Certified Local Government program.
“The name sounds kind of funny,” she admitted, and explained that it’s a state-certification program for historic preservation. It allows a town greater access to grant funding for historic registries, oral histories, and other projects. She asserted it adds no additional regulations.
“It’s a statement that the town cares about its historic resources,” Fillion said.
She is also writing a downtown master plan, which is a new endeavor. Brattleboro has a town-wide master plan, she said, but not one specific to the downtown sector.
“It’s a big project,” said Fillion, and she is seeking grants to help fund the work.
Some of the downtown master plan’s focus areas, Fillion said, are “connections, how people get from one place to another.” The Whetstone Pathway is one example of a way people can connect to other places by walking or biking, she said.
Another focus area is “creative place-making,” she said.
“We have a really attractive downtown,” especially its development, Fillion said. But, because of its density, there’s not much room for in-fill. The challenge, she said, is “how do we activate the in-between spaces, like alleys and parking lots” for art projects, events, and other installations.
“Pop-ups,” like the bicycle “parklet” slated for Main Street, she said, are one way the town can take advantage of smaller spaces for new events and uses.
“There’s a lot of good energy” in town, Fillion said, “and we can collaborate.” Some of the organizations she mentioned working with include the Windham Regional Commission, the West Brattleboro Association, alternative transportation groups, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, and Friends of the West River Trail.
Fillion said she has no plans for radical changes in the planning department. There’s no need. “We’re on really solid footing with our Town Plan,” and other projects, she said. “I think the work with Rod [established] a good foundation. Now I can get out in the community and implement it."