VERNON—If you could design a new village center from the ground up, what would you include?
A farmers’ market? Mixed-use buildings? Senior housing? A general store?
These are some of the options Vernon residents are considering as they have the opportunity to create a new “downtown” on the triangular piece of land between Fort Bridgman Road, Governor Hunt Road, and the northern boundary of the elementary school.
In 2017, the town received Village Center Designation from the state, even though Vernon has no village center. Earlier this year, the state also awarded the town a Municipal Planning Grant so they could create one.
The town has contracted with the SE Group, a Burlington-based planning firm, to help the Planning and Economic Development Commission, town officials, and the nonprofit Friends of Vernon Center through the process of building the village center.
On the evening of Aug. 20, Patrick Olstad and Mark Kane of the SE Group led three consecutive hour-long public sessions at the Vernon Elementary School. The sessions were structured identically, beginning with a project overview and continuing into a period for questions and comments. Each had about 20 attendees,.
In July, Olstad and Kane interviewed stakeholders in Vernon about the project. Some themes emerged from these conversations, Olstad said.
They were recreation and mobility, agriculture, neighborhood, and a gathering space in the village center “to increase the opportunity to bump into your neighbor in the village center,” Olstad said.
During the last portion of the August meeting, participants went to stations set up around the room where they could vote on various aspects of the plan by placing a sticker to signify if something was “nice to have,” “gotta have it,” or, “don’t need it.”
For example, on the “agriculture” easel pad, attendees could decide the importance of a farmers’ market, community gardens or orchards, wildflower and natural gardens, and a store with local farm products.
These meetings, other interactive sessions, and a survey, will help the SE Group develop the Vernon Center Master Plan. With this detailed action plan, town officials hope to attract developers “who can bring new businesses, homes, and vitality to the village,” according to a news release.
“It’s a vision of what could be,” said Olstad, who added, “how that plays out remains to be seen."
The next steps for the process include continuing the survey and putting it online in the next few weeks, and more public sessions at Selectboard and Planning Commission meetings.
The plan, according to Olstad, must be completed by January.
Although Olstad told The Commons he is unaware of any other town in Vermont creating a completely new village center where none currently exists, he and his colleagues at SE Group have experience revamping downtowns throughout the state.
Olstad said the company has completed studies around Vermont to see what kind of development is economically viable.
Still, at many times throughout the presentation, Olstad and Kane said it was crucial for them to know what residents want.
“It really does help our process,” Olstad said. Kane noted that although Vernon has a Town Plan, the Village Center Master Plan is also important because it provides another means by which “we can identify what people want and get it out on the table."
For the “recreation” category, resident Lynda Starorypinski said she wants a boat launch above the Vernon dam.
She told a story of taking her boat out on the town’s only launch, which is just below the dam. Suddenly, without the warning that’s supposed to come when the operators release the dam, the water started rapidly rising.
“We hardly got the boat out in time,” Starorypinski said.
‘A little abstract right now’
Olstad said the “neighborhood” section of the plan presented a challenge for some attendees. He told The Commons some residents “had a hard time getting their arms around the concept of housing,” likely because “it’s a little abstract right now.”
“There was some uncertainty about what [the neighborhood] might look like,” he said. He surmised the term “housing” connotes subsidized housing, and there was some resistance to that. One resident wrote on the “Ideas/Comments” easel pad, “No low income housing.”
Starorypinski already had a plan for residential development in the new village: mixed-generational housing. “I’m a senior,” she said, “but I don’t just want to live with old people.”
That elicited laughter from the audience, and once it subsided, Starorypinski spoke about the joys of living where she can hear children having fun next-door. Sometimes she joins them, she said.
Kane reminded attendees that no matter what they decide for the Village Center Master Plan, “the scale is pretty small. We’re not under any delusion you’re trying to create a new Brattleboro.”
“Some people were more hesitant to expend town resources” on the village center, Olstad said. On the “Ideas/Comments” easel, someone wrote, “Instead of building new, why not utilize what we have. [And] thereby, control our property taxes and live within our means. There is no [Vermont Yankee] anymore."
Vermont Yankee was the wild card of the evening.
One attendee noted that not knowing what’s happening with the decommissioning of VY is a “definite challenge.” He also pointed out the shelved nuke plant places a barrier between the village center and the river.
“We’re trying to be agnostic about VY,” Kane said. “The plan should try to stand on its own,” he said, and shouldn’t be centered around using any land owned by Entergy.
“It would be nice to know what our options [for that land] would be, but we don’t,” Kane said.
Martin Langeveld, vice-president of the Friends nonprofit and a member of the Planning and Economic Development Commission, said that North Star, the company performing the decommissioning, claims the entire process will take six years. “The hope is at the end of this process, there’ll be a whole space for use, and North Star has promised that with safe spaces [like office buildings] the town will get priority,” he said.
Langeveld noted the Town Plan includes using some of the Entergy/VY land for light industrial and recreational uses. “I don’t see that as residential,” he said, “because I doubt anyone wants to live on the site of a former nuclear power plant.”
“Even if the Yankee plant does become available” during the planning process, “it’ll need some investment money to get it ready for public use,” Kane said.
Other challenges, Olstad said, include a lack of zoning in Vernon. Because of a lack of municipal development standards, he said that even though the SE Group “will make sure [the plan] reflects the community’s preferences,” the actual results of the Village Center Master Plan “may play out in a different way.”
“The purpose of a plan like this is that it helps guide community investment and private development,” Kane told The Commons. “People were concerned about the cost,” he said, “but implementation will mostly be the burden of the private sector, and this gives the private sector guidance on what the market will bear.”
He also pointed to Vernon’s recent history. “This is a town that had to go through changes, and they’ve done it,” he said. “And now they’re doing it again in a proactive way. It’s encouraging.”