Hartford Looks To Town’s Future

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/4/2018 11:24:22 PM
Modified: 7/4/2018 11:24:32 PM

Hartford — The five villages are buzzing over how, exactly, Hartford should walk the line between continuing growth, improving the quality of life of its residents, and keeping things affordable for taxpayers.

“So, raise your hand if you want to cut down all the trees in the town forest to put up solar panels,” Geoff Martin, Hartford’s energy coordinator, told a crowd of about 50 people who gathered at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science on June 25 for a community forum in Quechee, according to CATV video of the meeting.

It wasn’t a serious suggestion.

“No one wants to do that,” Martin said after a moment. “That would probably be a horrible idea.”

He was trying to illustrate that, as Hartford revises the energy chapter of its Town Plan, the community will make big decisions about how to meet state-designated renewable energy production targets of roughly 60,000 megawatt hours per year — a goal that could be met with a town forest-sized solar panel field of 425 acres.

But it also could be met in various other ways, and Martin encouraged attendees to help decide which path forward makes sense for Hartford.

The forum was one of several happening this summer, during which town planners hope to get public input on the big-picture questions the community is likely to face over the next decade: Are the town’s 18 public parks and facilities too much, or too little, to suit the public’s needs and means? How far should ordinances go in protecting historic places? Where are new sidewalks needed? Should the town take a more active role in maintaining its cemeteries?

The Town Plan is revised and updated every few years, but the last amendment, in 2014, was almost exclusively focused on the land use chapter. Matt Osborn, a senior planner, said a Town Plan Steering Committee formed earlier this year is overseeing the first major overhaul since at least 2012.

“Basically every chapter is going to be updated,” he said during a phone interview last week.

And the nature of those updates will have a big impact on the town’s future, Osborn said, in part because they will drive applications for grants to fund projects that align with the Town Plan, and in part because the plan comes with specific recommendations and action items for each goal it contains.

“The idea is that the plan doesn’t just sit on a shelf,” he said. “It’s active. It helps direct the community.”

The forums are being facilitated by Rebecca Stone of the consulting firm Community Workshop.

During the June 25 gathering, which was focused on energy, she said Hartford is well positioned to be bold in its vision to meet its share of the state’s aggressive target of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“One of the beautiful things about being an innovator is that you are prime candidates for philanthropic funding. So Hartford really is at the cutting edge,” she said. “Other communities that I’ve worked with in Vermont are not having forums with 50 people coming out to talk about energy, and they don’t have paid coordinators. So if you are primed and ready to test out innovative strategies or approaches to implementation that could be a model for other Vermont communities in particular, or other rural areas across the country, there’s funding out there to help you, for sure.”

Osborn ticked off the other chapters of the Town Plan that cover nearly every facet of municipal life.

There’s transportation. Housing. Economic development. Natural resources. Historic resources. Education. Utilities. Flood resilience. Community facilities. Community services.

“It entails quite a bit,” he said.

The next community forum, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the West Hartford Library, will focus on community facilities and services, and historic preservation. At 6:30 p.m. on July 16, people will gather at the Dothan Brook School to talk about natural resources and land use, and at 6:30 p.m. on July 23, the final forum, held at Town Hall, will deal with housing and economic development.

Stone said that one early theme she’s heard is that Hartford is eager not to price out low- to moderate-income families.

“We have to figure out how to make the cost of living affordable for people in this community,” she said.

Osborn said that notes on comments made during the interactive forums will be used to help create a working draft of recommendations, which will then be presented to the public for additional comments and revisions during a second round of meetings this fall. That would set the stage for a formal adoption process next year, in which the Planning Commission and Selectboard would both hold public hearings and take votes on recommended changes.

The Town Plan revision is unfolding parallel to another similar process that asked the community on Thursday night to develop a vision for the area between Town Hall and the White River School, which is bounded by Route 5 and Maple and Pine streets.

The visioning exercise — called a charrette — for that neighborhood could lead to ideas that shape the neighborhood for generations to come, said Kevin Geiger of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, which funded the neighborhood study.

“We think about the future,” Geiger told the roughly three dozen attendees last week. “And that’s what we’re here today for. ... This town has a lot of potential right now, and a lot of potential going forward.”

Attendees brainstormed in large and small group settings about what they’d like to see in the area, which serves as a gateway to the town and also is adjacent to the increasingly crowded downtown of White River Junction.

“They kind of complement each other. ... My main point is just to think of it as a unit,” said Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis, one of three Selectboard members who was present.

“One thing I don’t like that I see now is a whole lot of pavement,” Selectman Alan Johnson said. “I know we need places to park our cars, but there’s so much better use of that space.”

Facilitator Mark Westa of Brattleboro-based architecture firm Stevens & Associates promoted a spirit of creativity and innovation among the charrette attendees.

One person suggested that, with the fate of the existing municipal pool in doubt, it might be a good location for a public pool.

Another person suggested a drive-in movie theater.

Or perhaps a pool with movie screens, chimed in a third.

Others thought the site could host a large town library, an indoor farmers market, restaurants, a makerspace, walking trails, a trampoline park, a day care business, a bowling alley and mixed-rent apartments.

Westa said he would compile the ideas that had been shared and return at a date to be decided later in the summer to gain feedback on a more focused set of ideas.

Though the charrette-produced vision for the neighborhood won’t be encoded in the Town Plan, Planning Director Lori Hirshfield said the process still was relevant.

“If you put it out there, it’s amazing how it starts to happen,” she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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