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Planning Commission gets a earful from public on draft of new Town Plan

BRATTLEBORO—With comments addressing issues of zoning changes and economic development issues, members of the public had their chance at Monday’s Planning Commission meeting to comment on the town plan in progress — “an entirely new plan” that will replace the town’s 2008 document, according to a Planning Commission report.

The Town Plan serves as a guide to boards and commissions, like the Selectboard or Development Review Board, when reviewing development proposals on the proposed 2012 town plan.

Brattleboro’s current town plan expires in February 2013, and state statute requires towns to update their plans every five years.

This 2012 plan also “identifies current conditions and gathers public input as a resource for future public spending on community facilities, roads, utilities, parks, housing assistance, economic development, and other municipal programs and services,” wrote the commission in its report.

“Data and information related to the town, its residents, housing, and economy have been updated reflecting current data from the 2010 U.S. Census and State agencies,” the report continued.

One of the state’s overall planning goals that the town plan must be congruent with is establishing a coordinated, comprehensive planning process and policy framework to guide decisions by municipalities, regional planning commissions, and state agencies.

Whose vision?

Public comment from approximately 10 people who attended an Aug. 27 meeting predominately focused on the merits of Planned Unit Overlay Districts (PUDs), promoting density (non-sprawl) development, preserving the town’s rural areas, and creating economic opportunity.

Spoon Agave described his impression of the draft as looking like the 2008 Town Plan. He suggested that the commission include an analysis in the current plan to look at which portions proved effective or not.

Agave said that, in general, the goals sounded vague, unmeasurable, and not prioritized.

Agave said the plan needed to provide guidance and a “plan that will give us an actual strategy and an understanding where to go.”

The town charter requires the Selectboard to report at the end of the year on what progress the board had made regarding the town plan’s goals, he added.

Commission Chair James Valente said specific suggestions will be taken up at the commission’s September meeting. But, he said, if the plan were a general five-year plan for action, Agave would be correct about the goals section.

However, said Valente, more specific action steps “usurps” the Selectboard’s domain. Instead, the plan must guide the Planning Commission on land use.

Speaking for himself, Valente said he was “loathe to set an agenda beyond land use” in the Town Plan.

Agave felt that asking for specifics was not usurping the Selectboard’s authority.

“This is our town, not the Selectboard’s town,” he said. “It’s not up to the Selectboard to tell us what type of town we ought to have.”

Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis turned her attention to the plan’s economic development chapter.

She said that the goal to increase funding of Community Development Organizations (CDOs), such as the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., needed work.

In Bouboulis’ view, the goal was more about “maximizing the opportunities for funding,” and needed a qualifier as to what the goal meant and where the money would come from.

Bouboulis also strongly urged the Planning Commission to oppose the suggestion to eliminate the town’s requirement for conducting an economic impact assessment for businesses operating in spaces larger than 65,000 square feet.

The economic assessment is about the effect a large retail establishment will have on smaller businesses in town and community as a whole, she said.

The ordinance, she said, was developed after Home Depot had opened a now-defunct store on Putney Road in Brattleboro.

Bouboulis did agree, given the differences between New Hampshire and Vermont, that the Brattleboro area is “not ripe for large-scale development” like big-box stores.

In a separate interview, Valente said that the draft town plan suggests getting rid of the assessment. However, since a zoning ordinance calls for the assessment, that rule would have to change as well.

Mary Durland, a resident of the Glen Park Mobile Home Park, asked about the plan’s section on promoting density development in order to protect the town’s more rural areas.

Specifically, Durland spoke about the plan’s proposal to promote “infilling,” developing vacant parcels within urban areas, around Route 9 in West Brattleboro and Route 5 in the Putney Road area.

“I don’t particularly think that these are nice areas to put housing in,” she said.

“If you live along Route 9 you live on one side or the other, you go between the two at hazard to your life,” she said.

As a bike owner, Durland has decided against biking the three miles into town because “it’s not safe.”

If the town wants to increase housing in these areas, it had to solve the traffic problem of fumes and physical danger, she said.

“Otherwise, it’s all pie-in-the-sky,” Durland said.

Adam Hubbard described the document as “incredible” and commended the work.

Hubbard, a landscape architect and project manager, is working with the Brattleboro Housing Authority to develop a new affordable housing facility of more than 150 units.

Downtown’s mixed-use development pattern grew based on the needs of residents. In the current plan, however, Hubbard said he saw a lot of single-use planning and doing away with Planned Unit Development Overlay Districts.

PUDs allow for multi-use zoning within a larger planned zone, like residential housing within an area zoned for commercial use.

According to Valente, the draft town plan suggests limiting PUDs, now sanctioned by state statute and allowed town-wide, to only one zone in town The draft plan’s PUD suggestion would not be inconsistent with state law, Valente said.

Hubbard worried that limiting land use could hinder the town. There might be places in town where people could do something creative but are stopped by zoning that prohibits those uses, he said.

Making things easier for housing and business should be high priority, he said.

Hubbard noted that the bulk of Brattleboro’s tax base, about 64 percent, rests on residents rather than commercial enterprises. About 50 percent of the housing units in town are subsidized, he added.

“Take those out, and you’re asking some 20 percent of housing residents to foot the bill,” he said.

Tim Cuthbertson, chair of the Development Review Board and a business owner, also spoke about PUDs.

In his opinion, PUDs are designed to help where conventional zoning doesn’t fit an application.

“We have to provide for uses outside” the regular zoned use, he said.

PUDs still have to conform to the town plan, he said. But Cuthbertson added that removing a planning tool like PUDs removes flexibility in the realm of economic development.

The town never knows what economic development opportunities passes by after people look at its zoning, he said, asserting that Act 250, the state’s land use and development act, often sends people to New Hampshire.

“It’s paramount that our plan encourages economic stability and growth in our community,” he said.

Some areas shouldn’t be a PUD, said Bouboulis, saying that developers might use this method to circumvent zoning.

Neighbors have little input and rights once a project starts, she added.

The process

Valente said that the process to update the plan, first adopted in 1963, is nearing an end. Updating the plan has taken four years, according to the commission’s report.

The process has included multiple public meetings, drafts, and work by small committees, said Valente. The commission also held informational sessions at the West Brattleboro Fire Station and at the Municipal Center.

By early September, the commission will incorporate the changes suggested by the public and present the plan to the Selectboard.

Valente said that planning commissioners will review the list of suggestions and address them at their Sept. 10 meeting.

After the 30 days notice period, the Selectboard will hold two public hearings.

That board will then hold its own public hearings before approving the plan, likely in October.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #167 (Wednesday, August 29, 2012).

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