Middlebury unveils updated plan draft

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Planning Commission is asking for public comments on the most expansive, graphic-laden town plan revision in the community’s history.
The state requires Vermont towns to update their plans — blueprints for how municipalities see themselves currently and how they would like to grow in the future — every five years.
It is an assignment the Middlebury Planning Commission has been working on for several months, and the results are eye-popping.
“Sometimes, updates are just ‘updates,’” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. “This is a revision.”
He stressed that the proposed document does not jettison the core principals of past town plans. Rather, it means the commission took a different approach in crafting the plan, one that saw board members and townspeople transform the document into a more thorough and user-friendly tool to better guide decision-making on how Middlebury could change in coming years.
All of the commission members helped write individual plan chapters, which cover such boilerplate areas as natural and scenic resources, housing, transportation, energy and the local economy, plus a new section — “Health and Wellness.”
“We recognize this as a new and important area of community planning that isn’t required in the state statute, but we wanted to do it,” Dunnington said of the health and wellness section.
Commission members sought out experts in the topic areas to which they were assigned. The commission sent out a survey to the town’s roughly 8,000 residents and held a series of public forums, beginning back in the fall of 2010, on the various sections of the plan to get wider input.
“We have 8,000 planners in this town,” Dunnington said.
Five overriding themes emerged from the commission’s survey and public sessions to guide the content of the revised town plan. Those themes are:
•  “Trends” — to acknowledge, respond to and take advantage of future challenges and possibilities.
•      “Affordability” — to ensure all socioeconomic groups have a chance to live in Middlebury.
•      “Sustainability” — to ensure the community is economically, environmentally and socially healthy and resilient.
•  “Community character” — to define, preserve and enhance what makes the community unique.
•  “Social interaction” — to provide opportunities for people to gather, exchange ideas and build relationships.
Built on those five themes are 199 pages of facts, figures, history, insights, colorful graphs and recommendations.
“Our plan is driven by the question, ‘What do people want?’” Dunnington said.
For the first time in years, Middlebury’s town plan will not feature a copious amount of ink on downtown traffic snarls and the need to create a bypass or an in-town bridge — of course, the town and Middlebury College partnered in establishing the new Cross Street Bridge that has successfully relieved congestion in the village.
The plan instead directs residents to tackle new challenges — some of which are evident in other towns throughout Vermont. Those challenges include recognizing a rapidly graying population, a pattern of climate change, and a gradual transition to green energy. The document also acknowledges a proposal by Vermont Gas to extend its natural gas pipeline into Middlebury.
A sampling of the plan’s many recommendations include:
•  Exploring all options for a fairer tax system.
•  Building a community consensus with citizens and Middlebury College and other nonprofits for payments in lieu of taxes, appropriate user fees, impact fees and charges for municipal services.
•  Making sure the transportation system supports locally owned businesses and small-scale shopping areas.
•  Planning for walkable, in-town neighborhoods.
•  Building a roundabout at the intersection of Exchange Street and Route 7.
•  Promoting the establishment of town-wide energy savings goals and community efforts to promote energy savings strategies.
•  Encouraging Vermont Gas to offer a local natural gas fueling station.
•  Supporting the “appropriate development of a hydroelectric facility at the Falls provided partnership with the town and hydro developers and affected property owners can be achieved.”
Dunnington added the plan more clearly describes the relationship between the town and the college and includes a more complete section on the historic development of the community.
“Past plans were a snapshot of, ‘Here’s what we think now,’” Dunnington said. The current plan, he said, acknowledges past research along with ideas on how to take planning forward.
“That is the reason for its bulk,” Dunnington said of the plan’s expanded size. “It has all of that information for people who want it.”
And people who want it have easy access to the document, maps and graphs — through the town’s website, www.middlebury.govoffice.com. News of the town plan draft has also gone on Facebook. Hard copies can be purchased for $10 from at the town offices.
It is a document that is not intended to gather dust on a shelf, stressed Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm. The commission will ensure this, in part, by taking two steps.
First, the commission will turn over various sections of the plan to groups that have a vested interest in carrying out the vision of those parts of the plan.
For example, the Middlebury Area Land Trust and other local environmental groups will be presented with the natural resources section of the plan to see if its ideals are being fulfilled during the coming years.
Because Middlebury already has an energy committee, it will be asked to monitor the energy portion of the plan, Malcolm said, while Addison County Transit Resources and the town’s public works department will be among groups monitoring the transportation section. Commission members will serve as liaisons to the groups that receive sections.
Second, Malcolm wants the commission to meet with the selectboard, perhaps monthly, to discuss the plan and the impact it is having on the community.
“We hope to have a more active plan,” Malcolm said. “I don’t think the town plan should be stagnant.”
The planning commission will hold at least one public hearing on the town plan draft and perhaps make more changes before sending it off to the selectboard, which will hold its own hearings before approving, rejecting, or sending the document back for more revisions. A tentative timetable calls for a revised town plan to be adopted by this fall.
Malcolm believes Middlebury residents have the same overall aspirations for the town, but may differ on how to achieve those goals.
“I think we all want the same thing,” Malcolm said. “It’s just how you get there.” 
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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