Vt. towns contest limits on development

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 11/1/2019 9:56:53 PM
Modified: 11/1/2019 9:56:38 PM

WOODSTOCK — As several Upper Valley towns object to new land use designations in the draft regional plan, the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission board has instructed its professional staff to meet with planners from Hartford; Bradford, Vt.; and Topsham, Vt., to see if they can hammer out their differences.

The instruction came during a public hearing earlier this week in Woodstock for Two Rivers and its 30 member towns to consider amendments to the regional plan, normally a pro forma affair where many had expected the 347-page document to be approved by a majority of the board.

Instead, they opted not to vote on the plan Wednesday night after planners from the three towns protested that new land use designations could hamper future development in areas where they have long targeted business or residential expansion.

The new designations in land use have caused friction between town planners and the regional planning body as the former have criticized the latter over what it contends is micromanaging of local zoning. Two Rivers says it is simply implementing the mandate of the Legislature, which in recent years has taken steps to more closely regulate land use.

The new regional plan, which has been in the works for the past two years, is meant to reflect “important, positive changes the towns want and need,” Peter Gregory, executive director of Two Rivers, said on Friday.

Nonetheless, after feedback and comment from local planners, “we need a little more time to refine” how the new land-use designations will apply at the local level, he acknowledged.

Depending on the significance of changes — if any are agreed to — Two Rivers would have to warn another public hearing, which would be its fourth since July.

“We’re going to go into this of finding where we can agree, finding something acceptable to both parties,” said Lori Hirshfield, director of planning and development for the town of Hartford, which has a history of battling with Two Rivers and was sharply critical of the draft regional plan.

Specifically, Hartford has pushed back against the draft plan’s new designation of “mixed use” for the Quechee Gorge area.

Under the current regional plan, Quechee Gorge — a popular tourist destination along Route 4 with a cluster of retail shops and restaurants — is designated as “rural” by Two Rivers and “gateway commercial” by Hartford. But under Two Rivers’ new “mixed-use” designation, “primary retail” development would be prohibited.

Two Rivers has said that the new designation would not affect the majority of businesses at Quechee Gorge because it would kick in only under an Act 250 review or if a proposed development occupied at least 10 acres.

But the town is concerned that just cracking the door open could be a detriment to future businesses in the area that are supported by tourism.

Hartford is urging Two Rivers to adopt its “gateway commercial” designation for Quechee Gorge, which the town argues would “preserve the natural beauty and aesthetic qualities of the area” while allowing for its “continued long-term vitality.”

For Bradford, the issue is development in the area known as the “Lower Plain,” a stretch of businesses a couple miles south of downtown along Route 5.

Bradford already had successfully lobbied Two Rivers to extend its “Town Center” designation 500 feet south on the east side of Route 5, which would permit principal retail on the so-called undeveloped Bradford Square parcel where Tractor Supply has expressed interest in building a new store.

But when Two Rivers agreed to include Bradford Square as part of downtown Bradford, it did not extend the designation to the west side of Route 5, even though the town recently invested a substantial amount of money to ensure that the west side of Route 5 would have access to water and sewer lines.

Marcey Carver, chairwoman of the Bradford Planning Commission, described herself as “relieved” when commissioners did not approve the draft regional plan.

“There are still areas both north and south of Route 25 that are not in Town Center (under the regional plan) which will present issues for development, particularly principal retail,” she said via email.

This is of particular concern because Act 250 and regional plan come into play on any commercial development of one acre or more” in Bradford.

Even Topsham, a town in northern Orange County remote from the kind of development issues in Bradford and Hartford, is struggling with the new regional plan.

Steve Otterman, chair of the Topsham Planning Board, said the draft regional plan designates more than 50% of the town’s land as “forest-based resource areas,” defined as large blocks of unfragmented forest that is needed to sustain the forest industry and critical to wildlife habitat.

But the new designation states year-round residential housing is “not appropriate” if built farther than 300 feet from the forest’s edge.

Topsham has no zoning and previously the area had no designation, Otterman said. And even though Otterman said he agrees in principle that unfragmented forests and wildlife corridors should be protected, “we don’t want to throw up anything in the way of development here. We’re a poor town.”

Hartford’s Hirshfield, striking a diplomatic tone, said a delay on approving the new regional plan is a positive move, although she acknowledged it might not result in changes.

“I don’t know whether we are going to come to an agreement, but at this point there is an openness and willingness to have a dialogue that was recognized by a majority of the commission members,” she said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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