As chair and vice-chair of the Shelburne Selectboard, we want to address concerns expressed by Shelburne residents related to economic development in Shelburne. We want to clarify the goals and motivation for this initiative, what we hope to accomplish and what we hope to protect and preserve.
Economic development became a priority at the selectboard’s April 2019 annual retreat. This was in response to perceived lack of town support for the local business community, the underperforming Route 7 corridor, a tourism economy with untapped potential, looming capital needs for infrastructure, and an unsustainable annual increase to the municipal tax rate — averaging around 4 percent per year.
At an economic development forum at the Pierson Library in September 2019, with members of the selectboard, local and state business community, specialists and residents, several takeaways were identified: the need for a dedicated economic development staff person to attend to growing our business community and revitalizing Route 7. The town’s planning and zoning framework was also identified as unnecessarily complex, inefficient and counterproductive.
David Leckey was hired as a consultant to provide an analysis of current conditions and opportunities in Shelburne and to recommend a course of action. His report — available on the town website — confirms what we already know: Shelburne has incredible assets that are underutilized; a stunning location with popular tourist attractions; an untapped economic corridor in Route 7; a historic downtown; abundant cultural and recreational attractions, etc.
But our ability to capitalize on these assets has been hampered by a lack of focused, concerted effort and vision, and an ineffective regulatory framework. Leckey’s report recommends five priority actions that include seeking designated downtown status, a state designation that provides access to additional forms of support and tax incentives, including access to infrastructure funding needed to make our village more walkable and bikeable, consistent with the vision in the town plan.
On the issue of regulatory reform, Leckey recommends Shelburne pursue regulations that are intentional, more effective at cultivating and curating the change we want, while being more logical, coherent and simpler to apply. Comprehensive reform will take time.
For now, the selectboard has decided to pursue easy fixes such as allowing more administrative review of minor projects like fences, porches and setbacks.
Economic development as envisioned by the selectboard and described in Leckey’s report is not simply growth or more development. It is economic growth that benefits Shelburne, exemplified in our town plan, and consistent with those values.
Growth will happen. The trends, documented in the recent census results and the numerous projects already underway, are clear. Shelburne will change, but we must position ourselves as a town to direct, curate and implement the kind of growth that we want, to shape our town in the ways we have articulated in our town plan.
Our town plan calls for a vibrant local economy, densely clustered in the village and along Route 7. Our plan calls for a pedestrian-oriented village center, with a robust network of paths, bike lanes, sidewalks and trails that link the residential areas to the core centers and each other, with green spaces, buffers and corridors, and larger tracts of open spaces in the rural district. Regulatory reform is an attempt to make these things happen.
Why should we want economic development? First, having a variety of successful businesses, non-profits, retail and merchandise shops, restaurants, services and office space directly benefits residents, not only our neighbors and residents who own and operate these services, but the rest of us who benefit from them.
Second, the town has enormous capital needs. Many people know about the new fire and rescue facility, estimated to cost around $15 million, but fewer people are aware that our wastewater treatment facility is reaching the end of its life in five years. The cost of replacement is estimated to be around $29 million. Add the growing expenses for running our town and the need for additional revenue becomes clear.
What about the costs to the town, to the quality of life and the environment? Let’s take environmental costs first. We are all greatly concerned about this and the enormous challenges and changes that we face. We need to up our game with more effective planning and zoning and increase our capacity to acquire and protect land and natural resources. We must develop the tools and resources to preserve and protect land, habitat and ecosystems.
Economic development and regulatory reform of the kind we envision can help us to do this — to protect finite natural and scenic resources as we create more densely clustered residential, work and retail spaces, that are less automobile intense and more pedestrian friendly. There are many ways to envision economic development and regulatory reform that facilitate, incentivize and encourage development that achieves environmental, sustainable outcomes, if we are bold and forward thinking.
What about quality of life? We hope that the vision we are presenting is attractive to most residents in Shelburne. It is a vision of a vibrant, local economy that provides access to the goods and services, cultural and recreational opportunities and work amenities that are essential to our lives, together with the pedestrian and transportation infrastructure that are essential to accessing it, in a sustainable, lower impact way.
We see this as highly desirable and think most of Shelburne would as well. It is not a guaranteed outcome, and it is vision that grows with community input and contribution, but we think it is attainable.
Help us to help Shelburne. That’s our goal with economic development and regulatory reform.
Mike Ashooh and Kate Lalley both serve on the Shelburne Selectboard. Ashooh is chair of the board, while Lalley is vice chair.