New Haven residents brainstorm the future

NEW HAVEN — Municipal planners looking for input from residents on an update to the New Haven Town Plan executed a kind of civic “speed dating” this past Saturday.
More than 30 residents at a community brainstorming session in the New Haven Town Hall broke into groups around discussion tables designated for five broad topics and spent 25 minutes at each of three tables sharing their ideas on the topic at hand. Facilitators were tasked with minimizing debate and maximizing opportunities to let everyone voice his or her own opinions and concerns, so that New Haven Planning Commission members could hear as many points of view as possible on each issue.
“There was a lot of input and a lot of positive comments and constructive ideas from the people who attended. It was very helpful to the commission,” said planning commission Vice Chair Benjamin Putnam. “We thought that this would be a good way to have the community brainstorm ideas that then we can interpret and see how we can put it all together as we update the town plan.”
Vermont town plans have a five-year lifespan. New Haven’s current town plan, adopted March 1, 2011, is set to expire March 1, 2016.
The planning commission’s goals were to engage community members around five broad topics:
• Commercial development.
• Residential concerns, including home-based businesses and affordable/elderly housing.
• Agricultural lands.
• Scenic views and natural resources.
• Renewable energy.
Each planning commission member facilitated a discussion table around one of those five topics. Residents then chose which discussion tables to join and started talking. To keep things focused, the planning commission had created a list of important questions relevant to each issue and steered discussion toward those questions.
Planning commission member Peter Rothschild, who together with Angela Dunbar facilitated discussion at the Renewable Energy table, remarked on the civility with which participants expressed a range of differing opinions.
Among the renewable energy questions residents were asked to respond to was the possibility of creating a solar park — grouping solar development into one area — rather than continuing to see solar expansion around the town, the criteria for acceptable vs. unacceptable solar installations, what consideration should one give neighbors who wish to install a solar array, and opinions about the possible construction of a large electric converter station by Anbaric Transmission.
Two state lawmakers who are also New Haven residents, Sen. Chris Bray and Rep. Harvey Smith, participated in their role as New Haven citizens.
“I’m mostly here to listen,” said Bray when it came time to speak his mind as part of the group at the round one renewable energy table.
In the next part of the forum, residents brainstormed a list of community concerns, writing each on a giant sticky tag.
Finally the entire group came together, pondered the giant wall of tags and began to organize and rearrange them to create a palpable list of community goals and priorities. While the responses have yet to be reviewed and analyzed by the planning commission itself, a rough glance at the wall showed which concerns weighed more heavily on the attendees’ minds than others. Predominant among them was regulating further solar development so as to preserve the landscape. Also important were retaining and supporting agriculture and encouraging home-based businesses.
The format for the three-hour forum was designed in consultation with Mary Jane Shelley, of TriFocal Consulting in Charlotte, who also facilitated the morning’s event.
“In a traditional community forum where people are allowed the opportunity to speak at a mic about their position on a topic, the result can be polarizing,” said Shelley. “You see others as either ‘on your side’ or ‘against you.’ This process was designed to get the most engagement from the most people within a short amount of time and allow for the greatest diversity of opinions while highlighting the areas of agreement by the end of the meeting.”
Planning commission members stressed that the event was a way of engaging the community in an open-ended discussion and gathering a wide range of responses but not a decision-making event.
The next step for the commission as they continue their work on revising the New Haven Town Plan will be a survey to be sent out in the November town newsletter. The survey will ask for public feedback on roughly the same issues but will be constructed differently and ask for different types of responses than the forum, commission members said.
Putnam said that while the forum was a kind of public brainstorming, the survey will be less open ended and will be designed to be more “quantitative” to tally up community responses to planning issues.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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