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Zoning, Kindergarten on Plainfield’s Plate

The Plainfield School Meeting will be held on Saturday, March 8, at the Plainfield Elementary School gym. Town Meeting will be held on Saturday, March 15, at 10 a.m. at the elementary school. Town and school officers, along with a proposal for zoning amendments, will be decided during ballot voting on Tuesday, March 11, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the elementary school.

Plainfield — Voters at Town Meeting may spend more time weighing goals and values than crunching numbers.

On the town side, they will go to the polls on zoning amendments that would allow residents to build free-standing rental units — so-called “in-law” apartments — on their properties. Voters will also choose between two candidates for Selectboard: Ron Eberhardt, a retired educator who values preserving Plainfield’s rural character, and Mark Horne, a businessman who hopes to control taxes and support new business.

Residents also will revisit a nearly annual discussion of the town’s relationship with Kimball Union Academy, including a real estate exemption, deciding on Town Meeting day whether to appoint a committee to continue a study on the topic.

On the school side, voters will weigh whether to increase their kindergarten program from half-day to full-day, which district officials said benefits youngsters’ education in the long-run.

They will also decide whether to form a committee that would study the pros and cons of increasing school choice for the town’s high school students, who currently are bused to Lebanon.

Both Town Administrator Steve Halleran and school Superintendent Greg Vogt pointed to warrant articles — particularly the zoning and kindergarten proposals — as having added benefits of increasing Plainfield’s appeal. The zoning could allow for the creation of more affordable housing for families who are young or single-parent, Halleran said, and Vogt said that while the “main goal” of full-day kindergarten is improving children’s education, a “sub-goal” is increasing Plainfield’s competition in a region where other towns already offer the service.

But vote outcomes are far from certain. Residents appeared divided on the kindergarten issue during a public forum in January, and Halleran said that although reaction to the zoning proposals has been positive so far, discussion about making zoning more flexible has come up against resistance in the past.

“The hope is you don’t change the things that made your town attractive to people,” Halleran said, “but it also makes a lot of folks who maybe couldn’t get their foot in the door (in Plainfield) … gives them something to think about.”

Town Budget and Warrant

The $2.25 million town budget, including all warrant items, is about $117,000 more than the one approved last year.

If all proposed spending is approved by voters, the tax rate would increase 17 cents per $1,000 of valuation, raising the municipal portion of the tax rate to $5.29 per $1,000 of assessed value. That would mean a $42 increase in town taxes on a $250,000 home.

Halleran called the increase “pretty skinny” — “no new programs, no new stuff,” he said.

Most changes involve the highway department, which are driven by hard goods like salt and diesel fuel. The town is also proposing to buy two new pieces of highway equipment — a new roadside mower and a replacement body for a dump truck — out of reserve funds for $55,000 and $21,000, respectively.

The major considerations, Halleran said, involve zoning, with the intention of creating more housing options by allowing homeowners to have two-bedroom “detached accessory dwelling units” — or free-standing apartments — on the same lot as their home, as recommended by the Planning Board.

Currently, apartments are only allowed when they are attached to the main house, such as above the garage, in the basement, or an addition, and they are limited to one bedroom.

The changes would also cut in half the amount of land needed to build an apartment in a rural area, down to 3.5 acres, and give residents the options of having a residence and business on the same property.

The proposals are “very much designed to help with what we see as sort of the new demographic of family,” Halleran said, offering examples of “college kids who have returned to the nest and haven’t found that killer job yet ... and they’re wanting to live at home, or ... elderly folks that want to live with their kids, and-or people burdened by property taxes wanting to earn income and wanting to rent to a Dartmouth student.”

The proposal follows the lead of other municipalities in the region, especially Lebanon, and are “what I would have said was unthinkable 20 years ago,” Halleran said. The Planning Board took care to make the proposals very strict in that homeowners could “never subdivide (the apartment) away” nor sell it separately from the house, Halleran said.

Selectboard Race

Eberhardt and Horne are vying for the three-year seat left open by Selectboard Chairman Tom Williams, who is not seeking reelection.

Eberhardt, 66, has lived in the Upper Valley for almost 40 years and in Plainfield for about 12. He worked in the Hanover school system for more than two decades, including 7 years as dean of students at the high school, retiring in 2009.

He has since worked various part-time “fill-in” positions in Hanover and Chelsea, and earned a master’s degree in environmental law policy at Vermont Law School, which he said has helped in his current roles on Plainfield’s Conservation Commission and Energy Committee.

He holds a “strong interest in preserving the rural quality of the town,” he said, adding that “without a decent environment, we have nothing.”

Eberhardt said he has “no particular agenda” for the Selectboard, but said this is his opportunity to give back to his community.

“I’ve always been a big believer (that) we owe something to one another in society, and this is the chance to (do that),” he said. “I like living in a small town, I value the qualities of rural life.”

Horne, 60, has been a Plainfield resident for about 8 years and has had businesses in town since the early 1990s, including a warehouse on Route 12A in Plainfield Village and other small businesses in the area.

His decision to run for the seat “really boiled down to (wanting) a new set of eyes and ears” on the Selectboard to question and analyze decisions.

“When something comes up that involves the taxes in Plainfield, which are kind of high and out of control, just to say, ‘Maybe we could do something different’ ... or just question what’s being done to see if it makes sense to everyone involved,” Horne said. “Anything to save a penny.”

He pointed to contract bidding for services, such as paving, as an area where he felt the town could save money by choosing small contractors who could do “as good a job at less amount of money.”

According to town records provided at the request of the Valley News, Horne owes $42,525 in delinquent taxes to the town dating back several years on a horse farm.

Horne said the taxes have been “tough” and are an example of the difficulties that Plainfield residents face trying to live in town and keep up with their tax bills.

“I’ve got more than one property in Plainfield, and it’s an expensive little thing to pay the taxes,” he said. “It’s like anywhere else, it’s a nice place to live, (but) you shouldn’t have to have a tax bill that’s $1,000 a month. ... At some point it’s got to stop.”

Horne was also involved in a zoning dispute in the mid-2000s involving truck traffic to and from the Plainfield Village warehouse he and his wife owned.

After a series of hearings, rulings and appeals stretching more than 10 months, the Zoning Board granted the Hornes conditional approval in 2006 to continue renting the space to a medical supply company, but the firm closed up shop. Horne said he sold the warehouse later that year.

Horne said his experience in the dispute also informed his decision to run and how he would take on the role of selectman if elected. More businesses in town would help ease residents’ tax burdens, he said.

“I don’t think the cure-all is to have an all-day kindergarten. We need to somehow reduce taxes and ... get people to come live here,” he said. “It’s been a sleepy hollow for many moons, and you’ve got to have some kind of business come to town and make it so it’s not such a battle to bring it to town.”

Both candidates said they favor the proposed zoning amendments on the warrant as a way to make Plainfield a more viable option for both new families and those who might want to keep their aging parents nearby.

Horne said it cost $9,000 a month for his mother-in-law to live at a care facility, noting it would have been beneficial to have the option of building a small apartment for her to be cared for at home.

“I think that’s certainly headed in the right direction to bring people to town,” he said.

Eberhardt noted the zoning “has the potential to make housing denser, and therefore potentially it could be used in preserving open space.??

School Budget And Warrant

The school budget is slated to drop 1.1 percent, down to little more than $6 million, not including warrant articles.

Superintendent Greg Vogt said School Board members paid heed to a new board policy passed at the beginning of the school year, which calls for appropriate staffing based on school enrollment, as they were crafting the budget. As a result, the district is losing about an eighth of a teaching position through attrition, he said.

Perhaps the more substantive considerations are found on the warrant, where the School Board is seeking up to $85,000 for the full-day kindergarten proposal, which would launch in the fall.

“We think it will benefit kids in the long run and that’s our main goal,” Vogt said, noting that the board relied on “good, solid research” that full-day kindergarten benefits children down the road.

He also noted the “sub-goal” of attracting more families to Plainfield.

Another article, which seeks voter approval to form a committee to explore greater high school choice, is a preliminary step toward potentially offering other high schools, in addition to Lebanon, to Plainfield parents.

“What we’re saying is we’re not going through that at this point, we’re just exploring the question,” Vogt said.

Vogt said some parents in the community have expressed an interest in greater school choice, pointing to next-door Cornish, where high school students can pick from more than a half-dozen high schools and tuition is funded by the town at varying levels.

“There’s nothing wrong with Lebanon,” Vogt said. “(Parents) just want to have the option.”

Other warrant articles covering 2 percent pay raises for teachers and support staff would add about $67,000 in school spending. The School Board is also seeking a $40,000 appropriation to be placed in the special education and tuition reserve fund for special education costs.

If the budget and all warrant articles pass, residents would see a 51-cent school tax rate increase, up to a tax rate of $16.96 per $1,000 of assessed value. That would compute to a $4,240 school tax bill on a $250,000 home, about a $127 increase.

School Board incumbent Kate Whybrow is running unopposed for a second term.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

CORRECTION

Plainfield Selectboard candidate Mark Horne owns the horse farm on which he owes delinquent taxes, but no longer keeps horses there. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point.