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Woodstock planning director departs after three decades

  • Michael Brands has retired after 31 years as Woodstock’s planning and zoning administrator. “I felt like they gave me this pristine snow globe and said ‘don’t you dare drop it,’” said Brands about starting his work in the town renowned for its architecture. Brands stood for a portrait at his Woodstock town home Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Michael Brands has retired after 31 years as Woodstock’s planning and zoning administrator. “I’ve never cracked that nut,” he said of creating affordable housing for the service workers in the town’s tourism industry. “It’s the one thing that really frustrates me.” said Brands, who stood for a portrait at his Woodstock home Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2020 9:39:41 PM
Modified: 5/14/2020 9:39:31 PM

WOODSTOCK — When he was interviewing for the job of Woodstock planning director, Michael Brands noticed a couple of details that stood out.

The first was that more than 300 residents were participating in drawing up a new town plan, an all-encompassing document that guides nearly every aspect of a town’s development.

“A town that’s that interested is going to be a good place to work,” Brands said of his thinking at the time, in 1989.

The second was that he was asked more than once whether he’d had any experience with litigation. Monied residents can afford to hire lawyers to try to get what they want. At the time, the town was embroiled in a legal dispute with Bijan Bahramian, a property owner who had run afoul of the town’s design review process.

Those two examples helped define Brands’ 31-year tenure in Woodstock’s Town Hall. Citizen engagement leads to a plan, and regulations have to hold fast and treat everyone the same way.

The town’s dispute with Bahramian “made me cross my t’s and dot my i’s,” Brands said in an interview this week. He retired April 30. “That was a good beginning,” he added.

Upper Valley towns all have town plans, but many have declined to enact zoning. Woodstock, one of the most heavily planned towns in the Twin States, was an early adopter, developing an initial zoning ordinance in the 1960s, then a more easily enforceable zoning ordinance in 1977. Design review followed in the early 1980s. The town has separate development review boards for the town and village and design review boards for the villages of Woodstock and South Woodstock.

While Woodstock is regularly celebrated as one of the prettiest towns in the nation, all of these layers of land use regulation can make it seem like a combat zone, with packed, heated meetings hashing out even small details. But the conflict generally turns out to be productive, Brands noted.

“That’s one good thing,” he said. “If something good comes along, we’ll work to fix it.”

Everybody has their say, the board or the townspeople decide, and everyone lives with the resolution, for the most part.

Those productive conflicts generally start with a short word, not in popular use: no.

“I’m known as Dr. No,” Brands said. “What’s good about no, is you can walk your way back.” When a planner says yes at the outset, but then details have to be hashed out and dropped, “you can’t walk your way backward.”

While the intense interest in land use and regulation have been constants of Brands’ tenure, change has moved steadily, too.

When Brands arrived in Woodstock, it was still home to four car dealerships, and some state and federal offices still operated out of the Town Hall, before decamping to White River Junction.

Woodstock, like other places in Vermont, has seen an erosion of affordability. Housing is out of reach, and while young, affluent families have moved to Woodstock in recent years, middle-income and low-income families find few options for housing.

Vermont in general, and Woodstock in particular, have fared well by “pushing tourism,” Brands said, but wealthy visitors can pay more for second homes in Vermont than many Vermonters can pay for primary residences. The high cost of housing has become not only a source of anguish for longtime residents who wonder how their kids will be able to find homes of their own, but a brake on economic activity.

“That’s the biggest concern of all the businesses, is you can’t find anyone to work here,” Brands said. While one affordable housing development, Safford Commons in West Woodstock, opened in recent years, its 28 units weren’t enough to meet demand or affect prices. Another effort is in the works, a plan to purchase homes, then resell them for less money to families of less means, Brands said.

A persistent redevelopment challenge has been the East End of Woodstock Village, parts of which required costly pollution cleanup from a leaking underground storage tank and a dry-cleaning business. A planning exercise to demonstrate the amount of retail and housing development the area could support remains tacked to the planning office’s wall, Brands said.

Another proposal for a parcel near the East End, 40 units of housing to be built on Maxham Meadow by the Woodstock Inn, was abandoned after neighbors objected.

Born in Cincinnati, where his mother was a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Brands was raised in upstate New York and earned a bachelor’s degree in American history at SUNY-New Paltz. He served in the Peace Corps for five years, in Guatemala and Ecuador, work that inspired his interest in planning. He earned a master’s degree in community and regional planning from the University of New Mexico in 1985. His first job was in Delhi, N.Y., near Ithaca, writing zoning ordinances for communities in Delaware County.

He and his wife, Evelyne, got married when they moved to Woodstock, and their two sons, ages 30 and 27, grew up in town and went through the schools. An avid cyclist, Brands was known for biking to work and striking fear into the hearts of business owners wary of breaking the rules.

Brands, 68, opted to retire not long after his longtime colleague Town Manager Phil Swanson died of leukemia last year at age 67. He was disappointed that he wasn’t able to meet with some of the many people who have served on Woodstock’s land-use boards during his tenure.

Lynn Beach, who works in the town planning office, organized a vehicular procession past Brands’ house: town trucks, Town Hall colleagues and some land-use board members drove past on April 30. “There was a lot of noise, a lot of horn-blowing,” Beach said.

Brands’ years of attending the meetings of eight different boards are over. Working from home for the past couple of months eased him into his new routine, he said.

“I’m just kicking back for the moment.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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