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City plan changes to be discussed in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents on Monday, Aug. 25, will have a chance to learn more about and comment on a new municipal plan that city officials are calling an update to the award-winning 2009 Vergennes plan, not a rewrite.
The Vergennes City Council set a public hearing on the updated plan for 6 p.m. that Monday in the Vergennes fire department’s basement meeting room.
Aldermen apparently expect the hearing to be brief: They also scheduled a 6:30 p.m. public forum to follow the hearing. That forum will focus on a toddler playground proposed for near the city pool.
Although city officials have not made major revisions to the 2009 document that was honored as Vermont’s municipal plan of the year, the plan has now reached the end of its legal five-year shelf life and must be at least updated.
The document is set to expire in September, and adoption by the council after the Aug. 25 hearing would ensure the city has a plan in place.
Aldermen approved the 2009 plan after plenty of public input during the planning commission’s information-gathering and writing process, lengthy debate at the council level, and 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 new 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 eased setback rules to allow homeowners to build structures like sheds, garages and decks closer to boundary lines.
Other changes listed on an earlier two-page planning commission summary included “clarified language” in sections on the Historic Neighborhood, Central Business and Northern Gateway districts “to reflect current regulations.”
Other changes include 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.
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.
After the planning commission’s June 30 hearing on the plan, planners made about a half-dozen changes that chairman Shannon Haggett called minor. Most comments at the hearing came from members of the city’s new economic development task force.
The most significant of those changes (which are listed in the planning commission’s June 30 Special Meeting minutes under the “Government” drop-down menu at Vergennes.org) might be re-inserting a provision to “Support a committee to promote the economic development of Vergennes. Develop a plan to attract new businesses and support existing businesses that are compatible with the character of Vergennes.”
According to minutes, planners had removed that provision under the assumption that the Vergennes Partnership would fill that role, but according to task force members that option is just one of several.
Those wishing to look at the updated 99-page plan may find it online 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. 

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