Departing city planner praised

VERGENNES — Vergennes officials said it was with unusual regret that they accepted the April 13 resignation of Neil Curtis from the city’s planning commission after almost seven years of service, the past three-and-a-half as its chairman.
Curtis, 42, oversaw the first full rewrite of the Vergennes city plan in decades, an effort that consumed most of his tenure, and also served those seven years on the Vergennes Development Review Board.
Both Mayor Michael Daniels and City Manager Mel Hawley praised that work, Curtis’ work ethic, and his successful effort to improve formerly frosty relations between the city council and the planning commission.
“He had a lot on the ball, and he put his heart and soul into it,” Daniels said.
Hawley said much of Curtis’ effectiveness can be traced to hard work.
“People probably do not realize how much time and effort Neil put into being the chair of the planning commission. It was countless hours. He basically took the lead on everything,” Hawley said. “We’re really fortunate. That’s quite a gift of time.”
Curtis is a planning and development manager for Efficiency Vermont. He said changes in his personal circumstances meant a move from his former South Water Street home and eventually the resignation from his appointed position because he is no longer a city resident. He has been living in Panton and looking for housing in Vergennes, but on May 1 will move to Charlotte.
 Curtis said he had hoped to stay longer on the planning commission. But he is confident planners are up to tasks ahead, including the comprehensive rewrite of zoning laws that is the next step after plan adoption.
“It was not my long-term plan to resign,” Curtis said. “(But) the board is full of highly qualified people right now. I feel comfortable and confident they can move the thing forward.”
The planning commission on April 19 took two of its first steps forward, selecting Jason Farrell as its new chairman and Alexandra McGuire as vice chairwoman.
Looking back, Curtis, who also served on a task force that studied a possible bike and pedestrian path to link properties on the city’s eastern tier, said he is most proud of the city plan and what he perceives as the thaw in relations between planners and aldermen.
“We’ve really changed the nature of the dialogue between the planning commission and the city council. It is a fruitful and a respectful relationship, which was not always the case,” he said.
Daniels said Curtis deserves credit for his efforts to keep aldermen informed and explain planners’ points of view.
“He does certainly merit recognition for that,” Daniels said. “He was like the Energizer Bunny.”
Hawley said Curtis’s regular attendance at council meetings was part of the progress in that department. 
“I don’t think Neil missed a meeting. He was always keeping the city council informed,” Hawley said. “They really looked to him and respected his role … and the planning commission’s role.”
Aldermen adopted the city plan this past fall after more than two years of planning; community outreach, including a survey and a series of public forums; writing by a firm contracted by planners; review by planners, who were each assigned sections by Curtis; formal public hearings; and then discussions between planners and aldermen over the sensitive issue of design standards for downtown and older residential districts.
Hawley said the entire planning commission deserves credit for the plan, but that Curtis planned every step in advance, notably getting 60 people to attend one planning forum and 155 to respond to a survey. 
“He has tremendous organizational skills,” Hawley said. “I really give him total credit for this. He laid out a schedule to make sure the city had a municipal plan adopted before the old one expired.”
And when it came to hash out design standards, Hawley said Curtis and planners sat down with aldermen and hashed out a compromise that allowed a smooth adoption.
 “You have people in town that feel real strongly that there be design control in this community … in our central business district and our historic neighborhoods … Then you have people who feel that it’s really their property, they shouldn’t be told what they should do,” Hawley said. “To try to find the middle ground in that is very difficult … It was good this time the city council could continue to communicate with the planning commission.”
Hawley said the resulting plan will stand the test of time.
“It really will be the guiding document for us, I really think, for decades,” he said.
Curtis said he is also happy with the outcome.
“I am indescribably proud of the outcome of that process. I truly believe it is a plan that represents how the citizens of Vergennes see their community today and into the future,” he said.
Curtis praised aldermen, his fellow planners and members of the DRB.
“My role has been made easy by the hard working and thoughtful members of the boards and the city council,” he said. “Although over the years there may have been personal disagreements about one policy or another, I do not doubt for a moment that we all have had the best interests of the city, and community, of Vergennes at heart.”
Hawley had the last word.
“It’s Charlotte’s gain, and Vergennes’ loss,” he said.
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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