Norwich Pares Back Changes to Town Plan

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2017

Norwich — In response to residents’ concerns about overdevelopment, the town Planning Commission is scaling back proposed revisions to the Town Plan that envisioned future growth along the Route 5 South and River Road corridor.

Norwich’s Town Plan, a comprehensive guide for land use that is updated periodically, expired in December. The new version has been drawn into a larger debate over competing visions of how Norwich should plan for future growth — and, perhaps, work to limit it.

Much of the discussion centered on language in the most recent Town Plan, which was adopted in 2011 and called for mixed-use development along Route 5 South. That struck some residents as out of step with the town’s character.

“We decided over a period of time to pull out most of the Route 5 South/River Road mixed-use district stuff and to defer that to a later date because we had to get (the Town Plan) adopted,” Phil Dechert, the town’s planning and zoning director, said on Thursday afternoon.

That concern, in turn, stemmed from opposition among some residents to a now-shelved initiative to create a zoning district allowing high-density residential and mixed-use developments in that corridor.

Planning Commission members already had worked to allay those concerns before a public hearing on the Town Plan in July by removing some references to the development corridor.

“Does the draft of the 2017 Town Plan propose a new mixed-use zoning district in the Route 5 South/River Road Area?” said a question-and-answer sheet included with materials for the July meeting.

Creating such a district, the commission said, will “require more input and discussion, and may or may not result in a recommendation to develop such a district. Accordingly, no such district is proposed in the 2017 Town Plan.”

Marked-up drafts of the Town Plan from September indicate phrases describing a potential zoning district had been removed.

“The planning commission is currently considering whether to create additional zoning districts allowing some level of commercial activity along River Road and Route 5 North, which are reached by state highways and easily accessible to Interstate 91,” read one section that had been crossed out.

Instead, the latest draft says, the commission may later investigate the possibility of such a district as part of a larger planning process around affordable housing and sustainable development.

“We will be beginning a public process to develop an affordable housing strategy and will revisit the mixed-use zoning proposal and other ideas as part of that process in the hope of building strong public support for the strategy,” Planning Commission member Jeff Lubell said in an email on Thursday.

The commission on Thursday night had been scheduled to vote on a final version of the latest Town Plan, but instead postponed the document’s submission to the Selectboard until later this month.

Selectboards have the power to approve town plans, but residents may also petition for a townwide vote.

A group of Norwich citizens opposed to the development corridor have circulated such a petition and are considering whether and when to formally submit it, said Stuart Richards, a retired developer and former Affordable Housing Subcommittee chairman.

“It certainly remains a possibility,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday, adding later, “Once the plan is submitted (to the Selectboard), we probably have a responsibility to submit a petition and have a vote.”

Richards, who said he hadn’t read the latest draft of the plan, responded warily when told about the commission’s latest attempts to address concerns about overdevelopment.

“If in fact Route 5 South is no longer a development corridor, that is a step in the right direction (needs to be confirmed) but there are a number of other issues that weigh just as heavily and a lot depends on the actual language of the Town Plan,” he said in an email later.

The Planning Commission is hoping to finalize its Town Plan revisions during its next regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 26, town officials said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.