Vergennes seeks input on city plan

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents on Monday will have a chance to learn more about and weigh in on a new municipal plan that city officials are calling an update to the 2009 plan, not a rewrite.
The city planning commission has set a public hearing on the updated plan at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 30, in the Vergennes fire department basement meeting room.
Planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett handed a two-page summary of proposed changes to the Vergennes City Council on June 17, and that summary will be available at Monday’s meeting.
On the 17th, Haggett told aldermen that planners have not made major revisions to a 2009 document that was honored as Vermont’s municipal plan of the year, but has now reached its state-mandated five-year expiration date. 
“The 2009 plan was a fantastic plan,” Haggett said. “So we’re not … making a lot of changes.”
Mayor Bill Benton and aldermen said they appreciated that logic.
“Don’t change it if it isn’t broken,” Benton said.
Haggett said he hopes to forward the plan update to the council soon after Monday’s hearing. State law requires aldermen to hold at least two hearings before they can adopt it, something Haggett is optimistic can be done by September, a month before the current plan is set to expire.
“It is my hope that all of this will be completed by the end of September,” he said.
Aldermen approved the 2009 plan after extensive public input, considerable debate at the council level, and a few late changes recommended by planners to soften some language. Most of those changes related to design standards for the existing Central Business and new Historic Neighborhood districts.
Plans do not create zoning, but form the basis upon which new zoning laws can be written. Among other things, the 2009 city plan laid the groundwork for the new Historic Neighborhood zone in the city’s older residential areas and the new Northern Gateway district on North Main Street.
Within those districts, it provided for zoning laws that regulate the general appearance of downtown buildings and the placement of homes on lots in older neighborhoods.
The plan also allowed for new zoning that raises the application bar for and sets design limitations on franchise businesses, and in older neighborhoods rules that ease setback rules to allow homeowners to build structures like sheds, garages and decks closer to boundary lines, as had been already typical in those areas.
Now, the changes listed on the planning commission’s two-page summary of the 2014 update include “clarified language” in sections on the Historic Neighborhood, Central Business and Northern Gateway districts “to reflect current regulations.”
Haggett said the plan update includes the zoning changes made to comply with the 2009 plan.
“Perhaps a more appropriate way to identify these particular set of changes would have been to write ‘Clarified language to acknowledge the work completed by the current regulations as a result of the 2009 plan,’” Haggett said in an email.
Many of the other changes, he said, just reflect new information on the city’s schools, population, infrastructure such as the new police station; current fire department and public works equipment levels and needs, and the present status and activities of civic entities such as the Bixby Library, Vergennes Opera House and the Vergennes Partnership.
Asked what planners considered to be the most significant of the updates, Haggett responded in an email: “reaching out to experts for the various services and eliciting an update from them (e.g. the Chief of Police, Fire Chief, School staff, etc.) and then putting their words into a uniform voice for the document.”
Also included is:
• information about the recent Vermont Council on Rural Development “Community Visit” process, and the effort to spur the city’s economic sector that has grown out of it;
• the effort to upgrade recreation facilities;
• energy policies and upgrades, including a recommendation to explore creating a city energy committee;
• and a Middlebury College study on possible city bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
Those wishing to look at the updated 99-page plan may find it at Vergennes.org. A drop-down menu under the “Government” header on the top right includes “Zoning and Planning.” Clicking on that box gives a series of choices in the middle of the screen, the bottom of which is the new plan in PDF form.
The standalone link reads: http://vergennes.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/2014VergennesMDP.pdf.

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