After three years and purported thousands of hours of work that went into drafting a proposed Morristown town plan, residents had their first chance to sound off on the document.
However, with development proceeding at a pace that has some people wanting to at least tap the brakes, the town is in a big hurry to approve the plan.
At Monday’s initial public hearing for the 2020-2030 town plan before the town selectboard, board chair Bob Beeman said the town planning council and zoning administrator and planning director Todd Thomas have spent thousands of hours, “literally, over the past three years,” on the plan. He said people had plenty of time to weigh in when the plan was being developed.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media about not liking this or not liking that, but this has been a three-year process, and this is, like, the 11th hour,” Beeman said. “There’s been dozens of hearings, there’s been lots talked about, and we’ve come down to this draft that we all like.”
According to the town website, the current plan, as of press deadline, is the 19th version of the rough draft.
It was updated the day after the public hearing.
The village trustees held their own public hearing Wednesday after press deadline. The hearing will re-commence in January, after planners make any changes based on public comment.
Thomas said the town plan and town bylaws are the work product of both the selectboard and the village trustees, and the planning council and development review board answer to both and are appointed by both. He said it’s more efficient that way.
“Ultimately, both boards need to agree to the language, otherwise it doesn’t survive,” he said. “If both boards are adamant about ‘I want the plan to say X and they want them to have the plan to say Y,’ that’s the first part of breaking up our communities and basically writing two town plans, two sets of zoning bylaws, two planning commissions, two DRBs, double your staff, that kind of thing.”
For all the talk about how the town plan is a joint venture between the town and village, Ed Loewenton said the biggest thing an aspirational document like it could do is advocate for merging the two. He suggested “the combination of the village and town and the elimination of participation in government and the running of a political entity by a power company.”
Thomas said there had been similar language in a previous draft, but it was removed.
Brooke Scatchard said that kind of combined planning comes at a price for a town that, despite its robust village and industrial sectors, is still a rural Vermont town.
“The combined planning between the village and the town is leading to compromises and treating the town like the village,” Scatchard said. “It seems that there is more rural character that’s not reflected in this plan.”
A town plan is something of a blueprint for development in a town and, according to the warning for Monday’s meeting, “provides a sustainable roadmap for the growth of our community.”
The Morristown plan contains 13 chapters: policies guiding future development and environmental protection; land use; transportation; utility and facility; historic, scenic, rare and irreplaceable natural resources; education; implementation of the plan; a statement concerning development trends and adjacent municipalities; energy; housing; economic development; flood resilience; and wellness.
Some people who spoke at Monday’s public hearing worried the rapid growth in town could get out of hand.
Wally Reed noted the plan refers to Morrisville as “quintessentially Vermont.” But he said with incremental zoning changes every six months, as Morristown has done in recent years, has led to things like local approval of nearly 200 housing units along a quarter mile of Jersey Heights.
“That doesn’t sound like a Vermont village to me. That sounds like downtown Barre or the north end of Burlington,” Reed said. “It’s been very beneficial to high-density developers, but the single-family homeowner in Morrisville is now an endangered species because they’re not going to want to live here because of the density.”
Reed’s remarks drew applause from the audience.
Graham Mink, the developer of most of those homes and other housing complexes in the village, said he likes the town plan’s suggestion of an affordable housing committee but suggested “removing the affordable part” and just have a housing committee. He said he remains a supporter of affordable housing, and even sat on the Lamoille Housing Partnership board — he also sold a property of his in Stowe so the partnership could create affordable units there.
Dennis Smith said most of the new housing stock under development is aimed at being sold or rented at market value, which is historically high right now, and is pricing Morristown residents out.
“The numbers that I’ve heard of apartments in this town are not affordable to Morristown people. But when somebody from Chittenden County hears the same price, well, that’s a pretty good rate. And when somebody from Boston or New York hears that price, it’s a hell of a deal,” Smith said. “And we’re going to end up with those people that can afford that rate. Our working people are not going to be able to afford affordable housing.”
Conserving the town
Hilary Warner approved of zoning changes allowing for high density housing in the village but disagreed with the town plan’s proposal that encourages more homes and businesses to use wood to heat their properties.
Warner also suggested the plan include more emphasis on public open space, noting that while the town forest in the Mud City area is “lovely,” it’s far from the village.
“I believe it’s imperative that we combine public and private interests to protect areas for outdoor enjoyment before it’s too late,” Warner said.
Kristen Connelly, co-chair of the Morristown Conservation Commission, said previous language regarding development on steep slopes had been removed from the current draft town plan, and she wants it back. She said other Lamoille County towns include it in their plans. Connelly said considering steep slopes when it comes to development adds property value because of the views, but it also helps protect wildlife and reduce stream pollution from erosion.
“The steeper a hill is, the faster water moves down it. Water moves downhill and carries sediments, which causes erosion. It’s not complex and it is important.”
‘Down to the wire’
Even as some say growth is happening too rapidly — or, as Kristen Fogdall said, “willy nilly” — town officials say time is of the essence and people have had plenty of time to weigh in.
Tricia Follert, the town’s community development coordinator, said she’s been trying to regain the town’s downtown designation status through the state, which brings several benefits to village centers. The town lost that designation in 2016 after it quit the Lamoille County Planning Commission over a perceived turf war.
The town has since rejoined, but it needs an approved town plan to get its designation back.
“I understand that people are coming out and they’re voicing their concerns, and that’s absolutely fabulous,” Follert said. “But I really do feel like we are down to the wire on this.”
When it comes to public participation, the planning council has not recorded its meetings during the pandemic and has been holding its meetings at Copley Country Club.
“We decided early in COVID last summer that we preferred to meet face to face outdoors rather than online,” planning council chair Etienne Hancock said in an email last month. “It’s easier to manage the meetings without the Zoom component, and frankly, facilitates better discussion. I don’t keep statistics but would argue that we have had more public participation this past year (since the lockdown ended), as well.”
That may be so, but numerous people Monday complained they had not been given enough notice.
Kathy Chaffee said the town plan includes a proposed 50-foot road connecting Upper Main Street to Copley Avenue, aimed at alleviating traffic into the village for people headed to Peoples Academy and Morristown Elementary School, and it would encroach close to her property. The short route already has a proposed name in the town plan, Alexander Street, although the plan doesn’t indicate the origin of that name.
“I think when you do things like this in the village where the property is very small, you should at least include people, adjoining property owners,” Chaffee said. “I mean, this is a shock to me.”
Nancy Banks said while planning council meetings were duly warned, the town could have done a better job of outreach, instead of just relying on people to show up at every meeting. She said that is especially important during times like this, a historic period of development in town.
“I think when you’re going through this kind of period, you have to sort of err on the side of maybe having the extra hearing or making sure the hearing is well advertised beyond maybe what’s just legally required, because you know that there may be a lot of interest,” Banks said.
Updated to correct the name of the proposed village road to Alexander Street.