Morristown’s insistence on having a say in how fast its commuters can drive through other towns has run into a roadblock.

The board of directors for Lamoille County Planning Commission, which works with all 10 towns in Lamoille County as well as the region, shot down Morristown’s 10-year town plan last week on a vote of 9-3.

The reason? The plan’s stated opposition to speed limit reductions in neighboring communities.

“I think having a municipal plan which codifies, as a matter of policy, opposition to another town’s efforts to reduce the speed limit, is the antithesis of working creatively together,” said Brian Leven, a planning commission member who represents Stowe, at last week’s public hearing on the Morristown town plan.

Morristown has been working on the 2020-2030 town plan for years, and it has gone through nearly a dozen revisions since being presented for adoption last fall. The Morristown Selectboard and Morrisville Village Trustees finally adopted it in May and sent it off to the Lamoille County Planning Commission.

In voting no, regional planning representatives suggested sending the plan back to Morristown to iron out problematic language in the town plan’s transportation section.

That language states that Morristown will oppose “any attempts” by towns to lower speed limits — including adding things like traffic lights and roundabouts — if those efforts aren’t supported by state speed studies.

Leven said that language is “simply unnecessary and, really, potentially self-defeating,” because Morristown residents and officials already have the right to present concerns about speed limit changes, even in other areas. However, if rote opposition to speed limit reductions in other towns is baked into the town plan, Leven said the town would be “bound by policy” to oppose even acceptable efforts to drop speed limits.

Leven, a lawyer and former deputy secretary of state, said state law requires town plans to get regional approval “consistent with statewide planning goals that are set out in statute.” He said Morristown’s plan has to be compatible with both the regional plan and the approved town plans of other municipalities in the region.

Steve Foster, a member of the Morristown Planning Council and a freshly minted member of the regional planning commission’s board of directors, said the language opposing speed limit reductions in other towns came after a “very long conversation” started by the town planning council.

Foster was one of the three regional planning directors to vote in favor of the town plan during the July 26 hearing.

“The accessibility of areas outside of Morristown, for the residents that live in Morristown to work, is so critical to our community that any hinderance or any negative adjustment to that makes our community less viable and less livable,” Foster said. “Therefore, the planning council felt very strongly that we needed to maintain some type of ability to oppose reducing the accessibility of our area, because so many people leave this town to go work in other places.”

Why risk it?

Judy Bickford, an regional planning commission representative who also sits on the Morristown Selectboard, had previously offered suggestions to further “soften” the sense of opposition in the plan, but her board tossed those suggestions, saying enough time had been spent hearing from the public about the plan.

Bickford, who also voted to approve the town plan, said although her efforts to soften the prohibitive language were in vain, they were “not totally disregarded.” But she said the opposition to lower speed limits is intentional.

She said while the town plan probably does not “have any teeth” in being able to dictate what other towns do, it is still in the best interest of Morristown commuters to efficiently get from point A to point B, and if the town plan carries some influence with the state transportation agency, so much the better.

“We’re not going to have any control over what Stowe does with its speed limit, or Cambridge or Johnson,” Bickford said. “We’d like to make sure that our citizens who are working in Chittenden County or other places aren’t hampered by a slower speed limit.”

Morristown resident James Brewster said he was frustrated that Morristown officials had been warned by regional planners several months ago that the language in the town plan’s transportation sector was “not necessarily as collaborative as it might be.”

At that point, however, the selectboard was content to move the town plan forward, noting that a town plan is only advisory, and things could always be amended. Brewster disagreed, saying the town should have forwarded the best town plan it could — he said it would have been “a gimme” to just soften the language so it would pass muster with the regional planning officials.

Brewster noted a pressing need is regaining Morristown’s designated downtown status. The town lost that designation more than five years ago when it pulled its representation from the Lamoille County Planning Commission board. It has since rejoined the commission, but still does not have an approved 2020-2030 town plan, a requirement for downtown designation.

Brewster painted a scene of one municipality playing a game of chicken with the regional planning commission, daring it to vote no.

“I feel that certain members of the selectboard and perhaps the zoning administrator are digging their heels in solely to dig their heels in, and possibly even just to make you folks vote against it,” Brewster said.

Local control

Representatives from towns on the western edges of Lamoille County also had issues with Morristown’s town plan, although they also said they are otherwise in support of a fellow town’s autonomy, and it pained them to have to vote against that sovereignty in Morristown’s case.

Belvidere board member Carol Caldwell-Edmonds said she’s been able to follow Morristown’s town plan vetting process along over the past year and has watched as version after version would be presented, with changes based on concerns from residents.

Dick Goff, a Cambridge representative on the regional planning board, said, “I’m offended by Morristown’s attempt to interfere with Cambridge’s ability to keep our residents safe.”

Goff, however, was one of the three representatives to approve the town plan.

Leven also said, while listening to Morristown planning council and selectboard meetings over the past few years, he’s heard a lot of talk about the importance of local control. He said that’s important for every town in Vermont.

“If local control is important to the officials of Morristown, I would hope that they would appreciate and respect the importance of local control for other municipalities, as well,” Leven said.

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