After 32 years of town planning, Dunnington plans to retire
MIDDLEBURY — After serving more than three decades as Middlebury’s town planner, Fred Dunnington will literally sail into retirement come July 1.
Dunnington, 59, and his longtime partner, Dorothy Mammen plan to set sail this summer for adventures on the high seas — though they promised that Middlebury will remain their home port.
“As we enter our 60s, Dorothy and I have an opportunity to do something quite different and adventurous in our lives, and it has converged as a good time for both of us to seize this opportunity,” Dunnington wrote in his resignation letter to Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.
Town officials must now turn their attention to replacing one of the state’s most tenured and respected local planners, someone whose institutional memory of Middlebury dates back to 1981.
Dunnington, who grew up in Montreal, Canada, has always had an interest in land use planning. He would pursue that interest at the University of Vermont as a natural resources and land use planning major, all the while witnessing the scenic beauty and diligent environmental stewardship of Vermont.
He got his first taste of municipal planning as in intern with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Upon graduating from UVM in 1977, he joined the regional planning office serving Franklin and Grand Isle counties. While there, he helped individual communities within that region update their town plans and zoning ordinances. He also did a lot of work on the Lake Champlain Basin Study.
His professional life would take a detour to its long-term destination in 1981. He applied for, and was subsequently offered, planning jobs in Shelburne and Middlebury. While the Shelburne job was closer to his home, commanded a higher salary and came with a municipal car, Dunnington opted for the Middlebury job.
“I chose Middlebury because it wasn’t a suburb; it was a town unto itself,” Dunnington recalled. “And it had the wonderful component of Middlebury College.”
Dunnington began his career in Middlebury as assistant zoning administrator working for then-Town Manager Dave Crawford. It wasn’t long before Dunnington became Middlebury’s zoning administrator and chief planning officer.
“I never thought I would stay with a town for 31 years,” Dunnington said with a smile.
It has been an eventful 31 years, during which Dunnington has helped Middlebury revise its town plan and zoning regulations seven times. He has helped review and processed thousands of development applications, ranging from tiny sheds to Middlebury College’s imposing John McCardell Bicentennial Hall.
“The town has been very good to me,” Dunnington said. “It has been my great pleasure to be able to serve.”
TOWN PLAN GROWTH
When Dunnington first arrived on the scene, Middlebury’s town plan was a rather small booklet that largely emphasized concerns about downtown Middlebury’s traffic woes and transportation challenges.
“The controversy was, do we have an eastern bypass (of the downtown), a westerly bypass or an in-town bridge?” Dunnington said.
Indeed, the newly hired Dunnington saw Middlebury residents vote against the concept of an easterly bypass. During the ensuing years he would work with the planning commission to identify alternatives. During a recent interview, Dunnington reached into his planning archives and produced a sketch he drew back in 1986. That sketch features an in-town bridge linking Main Street with Court Street via Cross Street. Dunnington didn’t know at the time that his sketch would become reality a quarter-century later, thanks to the persistence of the town selectboard and a $16 million financing plan that includes local option taxes and a major contribution from Middlebury College.
“It took a long time for people to come around to this,” Dunnington said, looking at the sketch. “But in the end, people said, ‘It can work.’”
Dunnington calls the Cross Street Bridge one of the most exciting changes he has seen in the Middlebury landscape during his time as planner.
“It has changed the geography of Middlebury and helped make the downtown more walkable and accessible,” he said, noting the more free flowing traffic.
During Dunnington’s tenure and through the guidance of successive planning commissions, improved transportation would become just one of several town plan priorities. The latest incarnation of the plan, approved after much debate last year, features almost 200 pages of maps, data and priorities for subjects ranging from affordable housing to recreational assets.
“The town plan has become much more of a resource document,” Dunnington said.
Some might call it planning at its most grassroots level, a major reason Dunnington has stayed in Middlebury and passed up other employment opportunities.
“My thought is, there are 8,500 planners in Middlebury,” Dunnington said, noting every local resident has a voice in the future look of their town — from the tenants of modest apartments to top officials at Middlebury College. Looking back over the years, Dunnington cites the transformation of Middlebury College’s approach to planning as one of the most impressive things he has witnessed.
“Early on, Middlebury College’s planning was quite insular,” Dunnington said.
Not anymore. Dunnington noted the college has submitted a master plan — akin to a massive planned unit development — through which it can give the town some advance notice on long-range planning on campus. The town can in turn give the college feedback on whether and how the proposed development can be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
“It minimizes undue burden on the town while allowing the college to pursue new development opportunities,” Dunnington said of the master planning process.
The past three decades have seen Dunnington make an impact beyond Middlebury’s town lines. He was part of a panel nine years ago that revised Chapter 117, the state statute governing local land use planning and regulation. Chapter 117 also serves as a clearinghouse of information for local planning commissions and zoning boards as they update their respective town plans and zoning bylaws.
“It was very gratifying,” Dunnington said of the experience.
His years of service have been marked with many meetings — almost too numerous to count. He, of course, has religiously attended planning and development review board meetings. Then there are the regular Addison County Regional Planning Commission meetings (he’s a Middlebury delegate). He voluntarily attends the Middlebury selectboard meetings and weekly legislative breakfast forums to make sure he is up to speed on municipal and statewide news that might have a bearing on planning and zoning matters. He considers it part of his job.
“Some weeks there are four meetings; rarely is there a week with one or none,” Dunnington said with a smile.
Come July, his mandatory meetings will come to an end. He and Mammen will maintain property in Middlebury but will try living on a sailboat for a majority of the year. Dunnington is an experienced sailor.
“We look forward to exploring some new areas,” he said.
“I have every confidence that Middlebury will embrace a new chapter of planning as new people become involved.”
Dunnington will be tough to replace, according to current and former town officials.
“Middlebury has been very fortunate to have the steadiness that he provided,” Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm said. “Having someone who knows all the ropes has certainly been an advantage.”
“Fred’s dedication to the town and its residents, attention to detail and knowledge of the town of Middlebury (both current and historic) are truly valued and will be sorely missed,” Ramsay said. “We wish Fred the very best of luck as he sets sail.”
Former Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny also praised Dunnington for his dedication.
“Fred’s work as town planner has been marked by a strong personal work ethic, high energy, and a great appreciation of the town” he said. “He has had the difficult challenge of working with the administration, selectboard, planning commission and public simultaneously, and was generally successful in that almost impossible task. Those many skills and his wealth of institutional knowledge will make Fred very difficult to replace.”
Dunnington said he will leave the town with no regrets.
“I am really pleased the image of the town is strong and that it attracts people and businesses because of that,” Dunnington said. “It has been wonderful to be part of the underlying work that makes this such a great town.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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