Hartford Defends New Zoning District

White River Junction — Hartford officials had the opportunity to lay out their defense of a special town zoning district in front of representatives from the regional planning commission that opposes it yesterday.

A total of 14 members of the Hartford Planning Commission and Selectboard, other town employees and a group from the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission joined together at the town’s Municipal Building for an “enhanced consultation” session, during which the regional commission went through the good and bad it found with Hartford’s master plan, which the town most recently readopted last year.

Many discrepancies amounted to small word tweaks. But a section that dealt with land use and development — specifically, a zoning district right off Interstate 89’s Exit 1 that could play host to a 120,000-square-foot office and retail center between White River Junction and Quechee, built by developer Scott Milne — took over most of the two-hour discussion.

“These are the kinds of things that are, under your plan, allowed,” said planning commission member Peter Merrill, referring to trucking terminals and “highway-oriented lodging and service facilities,” according to a document passed around during the meeting. “And they’re not what we want,” Merrill said.

Because of the difference of opinion between the regional commission and town, the regional commission has not approved Hartford’s master plan. Though Executive Director Peter Gregory stressed last night that regional commission approval is optional, such approval allows towns to apply for municipal planning grants, charge impact fees to developers and renew downtown designations, all things Hartford has historically taken advantage of.

Yesterday, Gregory noted the regional commission’s recent position — it approved the town’s master plan, with the special zoning district language included, in 2007 — was due to a legislative directive to be more strict regarding towns’ master plans a couple of years ago.

Further, he said, his commission’s policy on so-called “growth centers” hasn’t changed in three decades — but its execution of it recently has.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite to overturn a 30-year-old policy that we are consistently applying in all of the other towns,” he said. “This is a pretty fundamental policy shift that I think the town would like to see us make.”

Some town officials responded, saying that the land use portion of the regional plan conflicts with the character and goals of the area.

“I think the regional plan — it’s a nice document — but you’re not thinking out of the larger box here,” said Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Riddle, adding that Hartford is a “key player” in the development of the Upper Valley.

He continued to say that in the area’s “rapidly changing economy,” a 30-year-old policy wouldn’t work.

“We have got to rethink how we look at land use in this state if we want to have any growth,” Riddle said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.