Literary fans long waiting for George R.R. Martin’s next novel might empathize with what’s going in Morristown, where a town plan several years in the drafting stage and more than half a year in the arguing stage still isn’t ready for prime time.
But it is one step closer.
In a milestone last week, the town and village governments decided to stop adding to, subtracting from or otherwise amending the 10-year plan, after 33 revisions. Barring any last-minute changes of heart, the selectboard and village trustees are scheduled to vote to forward the plan on to the Lamoille County Planning Commission board of directors, which will look it over to see if it conforms with its regional plan for the county.
At stake is the Morristown’s designated downtown status, which the town lost after it canceled its membership with the regional commission in 2016 following years of friction between Morristown’s local sovereignty versus the regional commission’s big picture views on planning. A state official told the newspaper in 2019 that Morristown is the only municipality in the history of the downtown program to lose its designation because of a political feud.
The town has since mended fences with the commission — mostly; the village still isn’t represented on the commission board — but the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Economic Development requires an up-to-date town plan in order to consider it for downtown designation.
Selectboard member Judy Bickford, one of Morristown’s representatives on the regional planning board, said it is important to get the town plan language right so it wouldn’t jeopardize the town getting its designation back. “I’d rather do the work here and not have it blocked by other communities and for it to come back and haunt us again,” Bickford said.
Town planning director and zoning administrator Todd Thomas has long downplayed the importance of downtown designation — he said in 2017, after the state revoked Morristown’s designation, “I am not overly concerned about losing downtown designation.”
He again downplayed it last week, but selectboard member Jess Graham immediately disagreed with him, saying there are certain grants, including for funds “that would really benefit and beautify our downtown” that the town is not eligible for without downtown designation.
Graham voted against closing the public hearing, adding concerns about the town plan’s support for 1-acre minimum residential lot sizes in the more rural parts of town.
However, her calls for caution — and her nay vote in a 4-1 decision to end public hearings on the town plan — were drowned out by other board members and town staff who said the time is long overdue to get the plan off the town’s desk and on to the next step.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to delay it just because of the way things are worded,” selectboard chair Bob Beeman said. “There’s always someone that could come in and, say, ‘Oh, I don’t like the way that's worded.’’
A key sticking point for Bickford and for some county planning commission board members is the plan’s transportation chapter, part of which leans on neighboring towns to cease from any future attempts at lowering speed limits along Routes 100 and 15.
Earlier drafts stated that attempts by neighboring municipalities to lower speed limits or install traffic signals or roundabouts outside their village limits “shall be opposed” if there isn’t a state transportation study to support it.
Town administrator Eric Dodge and Beeman said the most recent draft “softens” that language, adding some extra caveats as a nod to other towns’ sovereignty within their borders, but it still says the town plan “objects to” speed limit reductions.
Bickford attempted to further amend the plan to foster a sense of “communication with our neighbor communities” along Routes 100 and 15.
Thomas disagreed, saying he and the planning council have already amended the town plan 33 times, including efforts to appease Johnsonites by agreeing to support lower speed limits where the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail crosses Route 15, even though thousands of cars daily use that route.
“You’re supporting slowing people’s commutes for the 23 people who might use it on Feb. 3,” he said. “I think we bent over backwards to continue to compromise, compromise, compromise.”
Caleb Magoon, chair of the Lamoille County Planning Commission board of directors, said some of his fellow board members — particularly in Stowe and Johnson — have expressed concern at board meetings that Morristown’s plan, especially the transportation section, comes across as somewhat boorish.
“My feeling is their concerns are more about the tenor of it, in how they talk about adjacent communities,” Magoon said. “The question is always, ‘are you in compliance with the letter of the law or are you in compliance with the spirit of the law?’ There are some that don’t think the transportation section is collaborative in the spirit of planning in Vermont.”
Magoon said he is not sure whether the town plan’s transportation section is enough of a sticking point to sink the entire plan, and four-fifths of the town selectboard were willing to take that chance and not muddle with the plan any longer.
When it does come to a vote by the Lamolle County Planning Commission board, only the representatives appointed by their municipalities get to vote — not any of the five “at large” directors on the large 23-person board, which includes Magoon.
Magoon said he’s not sure when the plan will end up on the planning commission board’s meeting agenda. The board meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday of the month, so May is out, since the plan must go through the the commission’s plan and project review committee before it heads to the full board, and that committee only meets “as needed” — although Bickford is on that committee, giving Morristown a seat at that table, too.
June is already set aside for the planning commission’s annual meeting, and Magoon said there is not likely any other business happening at that meeting. The board typically doesn’t meet in August, which means it could be late summer before it takes up Morristown’s plan, Magoon said.