A second public hearing this week on the 10-year vision for Morristown was like the first hearing in the fall, as numerous residents raised concerns about the future of the town, the rapidity of development and the opacity of the government’s role in all of it.

And, like earlier, town officials are eager to sign off on a document three years in the works, telling people they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The town selectboard, at its meeting Monday, heard numerous proposals for cuts, additions or revisions to the town plan. There were enough issues raised during the two-hour hearing that some residents called for another round of revisions to the plan, which is in its 23rd iteration.

But board chair Bob Beeman said there’ll always be someone who wants more change, and there’s never a plan that everyone wholly likes.

“It’s great that people want to get involved, but when you come in at the very 11th hour and you want to change big stuff in this plan, it’s a big deal,” Beeman said.

Town planning director Todd Thomas — who said he wrote most of the 68-page document — said the current 2015 town plan expires this spring, and board member Judy Bickford noted it will likely be expired by the time the new one is officially codified.

At stake is the town’s downtown designation status through the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which brings benefits to the town such as grants and tax credits. The town lost its designation when it left the Lamoille County Planning Commission in 2016 over what town officials perceived as over-reach and interference in local planning and zoning matters.

It has since rejoined the regional planning body, but the next step to regaining downtown designation is an official town plan.

Thomas also said the town can’t make any zoning changes with an expired plan and without a new one in place.

Appropriately, as construction workers hustle to get several new housing projects buttoned up for the winter, Thomas had a similar analogy to the town plan process, saying it is all but finished.

“We are putting the roof on the house,” he said of the final touches to the plan.

The village trustees held their own second public hearing on the plan Wednesday, after press deadline.

Requests for changes

Thomas said the selectboard can direct him to delete sections of the plan without the planning council having to go back to the drawing board but making any additions or revisions would require the council to meet again, further delaying a process he said began in 2018.

People had suggestions for all three — deletions, additions and revisions.

Beeman said he agreed with an earlier complaint from Copley Avenue resident Cathy Chaffee that a proposed road named Alexander Street cutting through near her property was included as part of the town plan. Neither she nor Beeman had ever heard of such a proposal until they saw the town plan ahead of its first public hearing, Nov. 15.

“There’s no reason for the town plan to have that in there,” Beeman said.

Brooke Scatchard said he is concerned the plan calls for reducing the minimum size of property lots in some areas of town and increasing the density of those same lots. He said increasing the minimum lot size in those areas is a better idea. He also suggested changing language that calls for ensuring rural areas “to some degree” to doing that “as much as possible.”

Many town residents staunchly opposed a proposal within the plan that calls for spreading the cost of the village sewer plant upgrades and operations to non-users outside the village. Laura Streets quipped that if she was going to have to pay for the village sewer services she doesn’t use, then the village residents ought to have to chip in to have her septic tank pumped out.

A suggestion from Beeman that town residents who frequent village businesses ought to chip in was rebuffed by several people who noted that businesses include their utility expenses as part of their business charges to customers.

Kristen Connelly opposed any possible expansion of the village lines, which the town plan lists as a possibility so any village property currently outside the boundaries would be inside the village and, thus, tax exempt.

Kelly Connelly said she was worried that language calling for more residential development in the Cadys Falls area would bring more traffic to the area, on roads and a bridge that can’t handle extra capacity.

In addition to containing aspirational language that is, at turns, reflective, self-confident and flowery, town plans include action plans, laying out steps to implement the proposals. Thomas said the town implemented about 80 percent of the most recent town plan, and he expects the town to implement at least half of the action items in the new one.

“The town plan is a living document,” Thomas said. “No one has a crystal ball, and no one can predict the future.”

Lack of transparency?

Thomas said the planning council has held 40 public meetings for the town plan, going back to 2018. However, those meetings are not warned in the newspaper, and appear only on the town website.

Chafee noted last year is the only year meeting minutes are fully available — the council met 18 times last year — along with three meetings from 2020.

Beeman told Chaffee she could always call the town offices and ask for earlier minutes.

“That’s inefficient,” Chaffee said. “The internet is there. There’s no limit. If you want to be a transparent board, that needs to happen.”

The paucity of meeting minutes on the Morristown website applies to the development review board, too. There are 11 meetings listed for last year and two for 2020 and none before that. The town selectboard’s meeting minutes go back through 2018, and the recordings by Green Mountain Access TV go back through 2019.

Compare that to Stowe, Cambridge and Hardwick, three other similarly sized towns with development review boards and planning commissions: Stowe’s meeting minutes for all three bodies go back through 2014 while some of Hardwick’s go back through 2015; Cambridge has a decade of selectboard minutes on its website, along with minutes back to 2016 for the other two boards.

Morristown Planning Council members said over the fall that their decision to move their meetings to Copley Country Club was made so the gatherings could be held outdoors; council chair Etienne Hancock said attendance was subsequently higher than usual. However, the council has not livestreamed any of its meetings during the pandemic, and the development review board stopped offering the remote option last spring.

Scatchard said other towns have a more “facilitative process” when it comes to crafting their town plans, and Ed Loewenton said if the town wants “citizen involvement from the get-go,” it ought to announce meetings and market them.

“You can’t just post them at headquarters and ask people to go find them,” Loewenton said.

Select board member Jess Graham, who came on board over the summer as the newest member, agreed a facilitative process would be better, since many people don’t feel safe going to meetings during a pandemic.

Scatchard said he got the idea about facilitative planning from a planning manual published by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the agency that will decide whether Morristown gets its downtown designation back.

Quoting from the manual, Scatchard said, “When it comes to planning, if you’re not doing it with the people, they think you are doing it to them.”

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