Longtime Windsor-area regional planner stepping back 

  • Tom Kennedy, left, is stepping back as executive director of Mount Ascutney Regional Commission and will be starting in a new position at MARC as the Director of Community Development. Jason Rasmussen, who is currently the Director of Planning at MARC, will be taking Kennedy's position as executive director. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/1/2022 9:13:45 PM
Modified: 1/1/2022 9:13:06 PM

ASCUTNEY — When Tom Kennedy joined the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission in 1989, the Windsor-area planning agency had a handful of employees and a budget of $70,000.

Today, more than 32 years later, it has 14 employees and a budget of $1.3 million.

And Kennedy, who has been the organization’s executive for the past three decades and made one of the smallest of Vermont’s regional planning commissions into one of its most ambitious, said this is the right time for him to step aside from managing the office and shift into a newly formed role at MARC.

As of the new year, Kennedy, 68, became director of community development at MARC and he was succeeded by his longtime deputy, Jason Rasmussen, 49, a land use and transportation specialist who has been with MARC since 1999 and most recently has been director of planning.

“The organization has grown so much that it’s difficult for one person to manage all our programs so I felt it was in the best interest of MARC to get a new executive director who is going to have new ideas and who can just manage the regional commission while I will continue in my capacity in managing the solid waste and brownfield programs,” Kennedy said in an interview last week.

Vermont’s 11 regional planning commissions are political subdivisions that were created by the Legislature. They roughly overlap geographically with the state’s 14 counties to provide technical assistance to towns since the state lacks the strong county form of government that typically handles such services for municipalities.

The RPCs provide a host of know-how and staff expertise in aiding local communities with planning and implementing of such critical functions as land-use planning, transportation, brownfield remediation, emergency management and energy and water resources planning. They do this by knowing their way around the federal and state bureaucracies, including how to tap funding programs that frequently finance municipal projects to get the money to towns.

“We’re the closest thing to a county government” for towns in Vermont, Kennedy said.

MARC changed its name from Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission in 2020. Rasmussen explained that the old six-letter abbreviation was unwieldy and “people would confuse us with the Southwest Region Planning Commission in Keene.” MARC helps with planning for Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow, Reading, Springfield, Weathersfield, West Windsor and Windsor.

But, despite its relatively small territory — Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission covers 30 towns and Northeastern Vermont Development Association in the Northeast Kingdom covers 48 — MARC under Kennedy has taken on an outsized role both in assisting with brownfield cleanups and contracting to run two solid waste districts.

The expansion into waste management is one of the factors that distinguishes MARC from its cohorts –— Bennington is the only other one to do so — through its contracts to run both the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District and the Southern Windsor Windham Counties Solid Waste Management District, said Kennedy.

Both initiatives, launched 12 and 10 years ago, respectively, and which run the solid waste operations for local communities, were key moments for MARC, said Kennedy. The annual contracts have also provided his organization with a steady flow of revenue that might not otherwise be available given the low number of member towns.

“Generally speaking, a regional planning commission does not provide services for solid waste,” he explained. “I did this because I saw there is a capacity issue for these districts — they didn’t need to have full-time directors or staff. I figured this would be a great marriage for us because we are planners and have the capability.”

MARC also overseas the biggest brownfield remediation program in the state, according to Kennedy, thanks in large measure to having two old manufacturing centers within its remit: Springfield and Windsor. MARC is involved with remediation of 500,000 square feet of brownfields in Springfield — including the current cleanup of the former Jones & Lamson plant — and 200,000 square feet in Windsor.

Kennedy, a native of Connecticut who spent five years serving in the Peace Corps and international aid sector in Africa before moving to Hartland where his wife, Mary O’Brien, has been a longtime member of the Selectboard, said that in his new role he will be focusing on managing the solid waste and brownfield programs. Kennedy said the contract is for three years and continues to pay him his $110,000 annual salary.

This is, in a sense, a boom period for regional planning commissions — and therefore towns — much of it driven by the massive federal response to sustain the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like most states we have seen an unprecedented amount of federal funds coming into Vermont which is now trickling down to Vermont communities. So what we have been doing is working with the communities to explain to them how these funds work and to guide them for use of these funds,” Kennedy said.

Such as?

“Like, ‘We’d love to get a swimming pool,’ and explaining that is something that is not eligible,” Kennedy replied.

Both Kennedy and Rasmussen, who lives in Weathersfield, see housing, long an issue both in the Upper Valley and statewide, as one of the key issues MARC will be focusing on in coming years.

“We’re hoping to be working with a few towns early this year on improving regulations for housing and to work with partners to do whatever we can to build houses or to get people thinking about other things like accessory dwelling units and home sharing,” said Rasmussen.

(Home sharing programs involve homeowners or seniors sharing a spare room or space in their house in exchange for the guest either paying rent or providing maintenance and homecare assistance in return. Rasmussen said MARC is in discussions with both Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor and Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock about how to “get out the word” about such programs.)

The other is the “healthy communities” initiative, which involves everything from working on food insecurity and other socio-economic issues that municipalities traditionally have shied away from.

“I see us having a large role in working with state agencies and nonprofits. Demographically, we have some serious issues. Unemployment and addiction are serious problems here,” Kennedy said. “In the past, communities felt (those issues) weren’t their responsibility, but that’s changing.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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