Residents weigh in on future of Vergennes

VERGENNES — One hundred and fifty-four residents of Vergennes filled out the city planning commission’s municipal plan survey this summer, and they offered some results that were both useful and surprising, said planning commission chairman Neil Curtis.
Among the surprising results were the strong feelings survey respondents expressed about the “look, feel and scale” of downtown Vergennes, according to a survey summary prepared for the commission by LandWorks, the Middlebury planning firm that is helping the city with its ongoing city plan rewrite.
LandWorks concluded that the current feel of downtown was “resoundingly important” to city residents, a conclusion based on the 92.2 percent of respondents who rated preserving the downtown as either an important or a most important concern for Vergennes in the future.
Curtis noted that 77.9 percent of respondents also supported creating “design guidelines” that would help maintain the character of the city’s downtown, adding that guidelines would not include such items as types of windows or paint colors.
Curtis said the response to the downtown questions are a prime example on how the survey will help guide the members of the planning commission and LandWorks in writing the plan, a process that carries a November 2009 deadline and is roughly on schedule.
“I think it’s enormously helpful in terms of being able to help us prioritize different issues and action items the city ought to be working on,” Curtis said. “People are so attached to the look and feel of those downtown buildings … When you get 90 percent of the survey respondents saying the downtown is important, it really crystallizes the way you look at the plan. It really is a priority.”
Respondents to the survey’s 36 questions on land use, the environment, recreation, transportation, energy and other issues did so with pen or pencil, or online.
LandWorks stated that “a diversified sampling of the Vergennes population” filled out the survey. About 56 percent were older than 45, and 44 percent younger than that. Roughly half lived in Vergennes either longer than or less than 10 years. About 70 percent owned property in the city, and 77 percent are fulltime residents; of those, most (89 percent) own single-family homes.
Given the city’s population, Curtis believes the number of respondents were statistically significant. 
“In the end, we were all very pleased with the numbers,” he said.
Among other responses that Curtis found surprising or of interest was that only 44.6 percent felt that speeding was a serious issue. “I was surprised there wasn’t a majority,” he said.
Also, there was no clear consensus on questions on sewer extension that Curtis said were included, “just to get a pulse, to see how the community feels about it,” and not because regulations would be written into the plan.
Curtis said high numbers of residents did not have an opinion, while smaller numbers had strong feelings for and against the general concept.
“I truly took out of the responses for sewer extension that it was totally up in the air,” he said. “The way I read that is that if someone came forward with a reasonable, proposal, they might support that.”
There was some difference in the responses for different reasons for sewer extension. About 40 percent said they could support doing so for small commercial ventures, while 39 percent opposed extensions for large commercial purposes and 34 percent for industry. Because of the large number of undecided respondents in each case, those numbers for and against become significant, Curtis said.
Housing questions also sparked mixed results, although most who had an opinion (42 percent in favor vs. 12 percent opposed) believed more senior housing was needed. Otherwise on housing:
• 51% said housing growth was most important or important, while 49% said it was less or not important.
• 25% said there is enough rental housing, 32% disagreed, and 38% didn’t know.
• 33% said there is enough low-income housing, 29% disagreed and 33% didn’t know.
• 37% said there is enough moderately priced housing, 40% disagreed and 20% didn’t know.
• 35% said housing is affordable, 37% said it isn’t, and 20% didn’t know.
The survey also asked about the future of commerce on Main Street from City Hall northward with these results:
• Among businesses residents would like to see downtown, restaurants (68%), inns (62%) and professional services (55%) were the most popular; and gas stations (23%) and auto repair (13%) were the least favored.
• Land uses favored for Main Street from City Hall to Vergennes Variety were homes and inns (62% apiece) and professional services (55%).
• Land uses favored for Main Street from Vergennes Variety to the Vergennes Animal Hospital were homes (57%), professional services (57%) and shops (46%).
• Land uses favored for Main Street from the Vergennes Animal Hospital to Kayhart Crossing were fitness centers and shops (49% apiece), and professional services (45%).
Those last series of issues will be the subject of the next public event in the city plan process, a meeting at Kennedy Brothers set for 7 p.m. at Monday, Sept. 29. Curtis said the planning commission has invited all Main Street property owners and residents north of City Hall to attend to discuss their vision for the area and the survey results, and to look over sample regulations.
“We can chat about how they would like to see it look,” Curtis said.
General findings of Vergennes planning survey
• 81% of respondents believe the city should provide more incentives to attract new businesses to Vergennes.
• Most said they do not walk to downtown businesses (37%), schools (73%) or work (74%).
• Most do walk around their neighborhoods for pleasure, 22% once or twice a week, 34% 3-6 times a week and 25% daily.
• 59% do not think parking is a problem in downtown Vergennes.
• 30% chose conflicts with truck traffic as their most serious transportation concern.
• 24% traveled fewer than five miles to work, and 11% traveled 31 miles or more.
• Recreation in Vergennes was rated “fair overall,” according to LandWorks, with a 29% plurality. Top recreation choices were bike/pedestrian paths (65%), fitness center (46%), and waterfront parks and picnic areas (41%).
• Among Vergennes community services, fire/rescue (89%), the Bixby Library (79%) and municipal water (74%) received top marks. Child care (15%) and sidewalks/trails/paths (14%) trailed the pack.
• 68% picked continued commercial growth as most important or important, and 58% said “mixed-use” growth was most important or important. But 64% said industrial growth was less or not important.

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