Editorial: An enlightening document

It’s not surprising the draft of the updated Middlebury town plan has sparked the strong reactions it has. That’s because the planning commission did a significant rewrite, and added much depth and substance to the document.
That rewrite made it lengthy: 199 pages, not to mention another 24 pages of maps and charts and footnotes.
Commission members added new pages to the town’s history; addressed the demographics of poverty in town; the state of the local economy and how to make it sustainable; there’s even a section on energy, including 39 bulleted points.
The plan is filled with statistics and facts, and it reflects the culmination of hundreds of individual voices and perspectives that were gleaned from two years of gathering public feedback to surveys, and solicitations for comments.
It was, in short, an ambitious undertaking and it presents a wealth of information.
It is too long? Maybe, if the expectation is that the average resident will really make an attempt to read any town plan front to back. Or perhaps one tack is to produce an abridged version, but keep the longer form for those interested in perusing an in-depth portrait of the community not often reviewed in such detail.
Is it too negative in tone, as several members of the community have suggested?
Yes, in some sections. In their endeavor to be objective and honest reporters, the commission presented the town as it is, warts and all, with a particular bent on the problems the town faces and needs to solve. That, after all, is the mission of the town plan: to conceive of a plan that handles the problems the town is currently facing and provides an overall vision of how to approach growth, education and the various community issues that are pertinent in this particular five-year span.
But in addressing those problems, the tone tends to approach the issues from the negative, rather than accept that few things are perfect and in reality the town is doing pretty well on many of the issues discussed.
But those legitimate comments are easily fixed with a quick rewrite.
Other issues may be more substantive. Several residents said they thought the town plan should strive to be more business friendly, perhaps by dropping its limitation on big box stores (the town currently bars such franchise stores over 50,000 square feet, and does not support franchise-style architecture.) That’s a fight waiting to happen if changes in this plan were proposed. (They are not.) Other residents were concerned with a move to do away with spot-zoning on Route 116, which would change the zoning designation of a few long-standing businesses such as J.P. Carrara & Sons, which would be grandfathered in to allow current operations but representatives were concerned about future growth of their businesses. (We expect there will be a suitable compromise.)
The plan’s take on whether the college is paying its fair share of town expenses is off the mark, though understandable. The intent was to put all the chips on the table, discuss it, tally it up and see where the town stood. In that process some good reporting was done that provides new insights into the town/college relationship. But comparing this college’s share of taxes and contributions to colleges from New Hampshire (and the taxes they pay) is beyond the pale and only serves to put the college in an unfavorable light (why not compare it to Norwich or UVM or Green Mountain College or Castleton State College?)
The fact is the college pays significantly more to the town of Middlebury than it is legally bound to do. And the college contributes to the health and vitality of the community in hundreds of ways that are, as the well-known commercial says, priceless.
But it is also true that the town has high expenses partly because it is host to many buildings that are exempt from taxation. Consequently, the town has high taxes and needs to be sensitive to keeping Middlebury as affordable as possible for its residents. Looking at the town’s tax base in as realistic a way as possible is a laudable goal. Doing so, while also recognizing how much the college gives back to the community would be a laudable approach.
The planning commission’s next task is to take this most recent round of comments under advisement, tweak the text to reflect the legitimate concerns, and post a revised version for public review prior to the selectboard holding public meetings this fall. The task of town residents, if you haven’t already, is to read the document (or the salient parts you’re most interested in) and chime in if something appears egregious. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about the community in which you live, which is one accomplishment this draft town plan — and the very public process to develop it — has already achieved.

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