MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Planning Commission members will take another close look at the draft 2012 town plan in wake of comments from several local businesspeople and citizens who are calling the 199-page document too lengthy, prescriptive and not welcoming enough to prospective entrepreneurs.
Those kinds of comments — along with some positive ones — have reached commission members in recent days by e-mail and through testimony delivered at well-attended public hearings the panel held at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library on June 4 and 6.
State statutes call on each Vermont community to develop a town plan and update it every five years. The town plan is intended as a visionary document charting a community’s priorities for growth, transportation, housing, energy and natural resource stewardship, among other things.
Nancy Malcolm, chairwoman of the Middlebury Planning Commission, told the approximately 50 people present at the June 4 hearing that she and her colleagues launched the latest update with a townwide survey that garnered 475 responses. From those responses emerged five basic themes against which the town plan priorities were measured: Trends, affordability, sustainability, community character and human interaction.
The commission hosted nine public forums to receive additional input on the town plan update. All of that research culminated in a voluminous document that includes facts, figures, history, insights, graphs and recommendations.
“We admit this is extremely long,” Malcolm told those who came out to testify on the document’s contents. “We wanted to make sure as much information was available as possible.”
Some residents said they think the plan is too lengthy.
“At 185 pages of text, this is a prodigious document,” said G. Kenneth Perine, president of the National Bank of Middlebury. “I doubt that more than a handful of citizens will read it in its entirety. Part of the success of any town plan is the ability of its citizens to understand it. I think it is crucial for the commission to consider reducing its length.”
Perine and others added they were concerned the tone in some sections of the document is one that will hamper business development. As an example, he pointed to page 19 in the draft, which includes phrases like “poorly placed parking” and “franchise commerce introduces cookie cutter design.” He suggested using alternative language, such as “As new development is contemplated, it is important that its design fits with the existing character of the neighborhood in which it is to be built.”
Ben Wilson, incoming president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, said that while he is pleased the proposed plan advocates for a strong downtown, he believes that cannot happen without a strong overall business sector. He said the town plan should be more accepting of business development outside of the village.
“We aren’t going to maintain a vibrant downtown without the foundation of businesses on the outside,” Wilson said,
Others said the plan should be more accepting of larger stores — or, at least, franchises that might be willing to tailor their stores to fit the Middlebury market.
Middlebury currently has a regulation barring big-box stores in excess of 50,000 square feet. The plan also does not support franchise-style architecture.
Scott Foster, vice president of Foster Motors, added his voice to those arguing the new plan should be more business friendly. He said the town has lost almost 1,000 jobs during the past 10 years — mostly in manufacturing — and that the town needs to work harder to replace those jobs, grow the grand list and give locals more shopping options.
He lamented the loss of Ames Department store several years ago.
“We have no longer become the destination for shoppers among many Addison County residents,” Foster said. “I believe there is a large percentage of our town’s residents that would like to see a Target or similar type of department store in town.”
Other local business people said they were wary of some proposed changes to zoning districts in various sections of town, including Route 116/Case Street and Route 7 south. The planning commission has been seeking to reduce spot zoning in town and create more uniform districts.
Town planners stressed that existing businesses would be grandfathered and allowed to operate and potentially be permitted for changes and upgrades. But some local business owners are concerned about their ability to sell, gain bank loans or get permitted for future property upgrades as a pre-existing, non-conforming use. Eric Murray of East Middlebury-based Ejm Enterprises, Bill Townsend of J.P. Carrara & Sons and Kevin Newton, a Route 7 south property owner, weighed in on the issue.
“The proposal to eliminate the Industrial District on Route 116 that currently includes J.P. Carrara & Sons and Otter Valley Equipment property related to extraction of sand and gravel and the manufacturing of ready-mixed and pre-cast concrete would drastically diminish the potential uses and value of those properties by potentially restricting future expansion of existing operations and/or changes in use,” Townsend wrote in his comments to the board.
The draft plan’s references to Middlebury College also drew criticism from participants at the hearing. Several people contended the draft goes too far in describing the college’s impact on municipal services and the extent to which the institution compensates the town for those services.
The plan recognizes the college, among other things, as a substantial economic engine that supports approximately $78 million in earnings for Addison County workers and generates, directly and indirectly, more than $19 million annually in retail sales. The plan also acknowledges the college as the largest property tax payer in Middlebury, “due in large part to the numerous houses, industrial and commercial investment properties it owns aside from the academic campus.”
State statutes exempt the college from property taxation on all educational facilities, including student residential buildings, dining halls and most of the real estate and structures on its campus, the plan notes.
In 1994, the town and the college negotiated a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes agreement that helps to reduce the town’s tax burden.
Current annual payments, according to the plan, are comprised of $13,000 for a public safety contribution and a $230,128 gift in lieu of taxes (2011 payment derived from the formula).
Middlebury College also agreed to contribute $9 million toward the $16 million cost of the new Cross Street Bridge.
But the plan also states that Middlebury College students constitute 28 percent of the town’s population, while the public safety and gift-in-lieu-of-taxes payments make up 4 percent of the town’s general fund revenues.
“With the advent of the town bond for the Cross Street Bridge and the added local option tax revenues, the college payments towards the bridge bond together with its gift payments… makes the college contributions now 10.26 percent of town general revenues,” the plan states.
“Were the college campus dormitories and dining halls subject to rooms and meals taxes as in New Hampshire, the college contribution would be significantly more,” the plan adds. “Negotiation of a fair share payment system regarding college educational and affiliated properties has always been politically challenging. With its non-campus property holdings, altogether the college pays 17 percent of the town tax.”
Perine suggested that the commission refrain from implying that the college is “not paying its fair share” and instead remind the community of other investments the institution is making in the community.
“Again, approach the issue from what has been done by the college that is positive and more than what they are legally obligated to do,” Perine said.
Former Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny agreed with Perine.
“The section (of the plan) on Middlebury College I find to be quite troubling and I certainly expect the college to find it insulting,” said Tenny, who now serves on an ad hoc town committee looking to bring new businesses to town.
“Grudging acknowledgement of some of the benefits provided by the college are qualified in a message that ‘it’s not nearly enough,’” he said of the plan.
Middlebury College officials submitted a lengthy reaction as well as suggestions relating to the plan. Among other things, the college questioned how the town plan addresses:
• Scenic resources. College officials are asking for clarity on what constitutes a “view corridor,” and how solar arrays and institutional buildings could be affected by that definition.
• Poverty numbers. College students are not reflected in the town’s poverty rate calculation. College officials believe those numbers should be reflected.
• Local economy. The college’s contributions could be better reflected, officials said, by noting the institution’s efforts to recruit the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology and other efforts to encourage or start businesses in town.
• Tax policy. “No other town plan that we came across went into such detail about taxation and tax policy,” the college wrote. “The comparison of what would happen if the college were in New Hampshire seems to be completely out of place and appears to be going out of its ways to make the case that the college is not paying its fair share.”
But a few residents at Wednesday’s commission meeting said it was fair to question whether the college is paying its fair share.
“I think gifts in lieu of taxes is not a way of doing business when an institution this large has this big an impact on our town,” said resident Charles Mraz. He suggested such a system was too random and that the town and college instead consider a payment-per-student in lieu of taxes.
Other speakers at last week’s hearings spoke in favor of resuming talks about an easterly bypass around town; improving traffic circulation in town by, among other things, discouraging vehicular shortcuts through residential neighborhoods and parking lots; and putting in stronger language to protect the Butternut Ridge/Lindale area from the prospect of a gravel pit project.
All comments to date on the draft plan can be viewed on the town’s website, http://www.middlebury.govoffice.com. Malcolm stressed all submitted comments, and the commission’s town plan changes based on those comments, will be reflected on the website. She added the selectboard, which must give final approval to the plan, will convene additional hearings on the document within the next few months. Adoption of the plan is expected to be this fall.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]