Norwich Residents Debate the Future

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2018 11:56:20 PM
Modified: 1/23/2018 11:56:23 PM

Norwich — At least 70 residents packed the Tracy Hall multipurpose room and spilled out the door on Tuesday night to offer their thoughts on the proposed Town Plan, a text whose vision for the future spurred a lively and sometimes tense discussion on housing affordability and how best to secure it.

Norwich’s 2011-era plan expired more than a year ago, and efforts to update it have been slowed by concerns from development-averse residents that the new Town Plan could be used to justify high-density rezoning with affordable housing requirements.

Others, such as Paul Manganiello, a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee, argued that Norwich needed to combat rising housing prices and an eternal shortage of low-cost options by reflecting those needs in its Town Plan.

“If I was moving to Norwich today, I could not afford my home,” he told the Selectboard, which held Tuesday’s public hearing to inform its decision on whether to adopt the revisions drafted by the Planning Commission.

“I don’t want to live in a gated community,” Manganiello said later. “I want to live in a community that has a level of diversity.”

Frank Manasek, a vocal opponent of the plan, countered later that most residents “do not object the least bit to some form of affordable housing.”

But “we’ve got to do something about large-scale development,” he added. “Unless we really want it.”

In response to worries like Manasek’s, Planning Commission members have worked to remove references to development along Route 5 South and River Road, to the east of downtown. A separate proposal that would have created a zoning district in that corridor was shelved in early 2017.

As submitted to the Selectboard in November, the Town Plan revisions call for future discussions about the role of affordable housing in Norwich.

“The town recognizes the need for a range of housing to meet demand at all income levels, including those families earning below the county median income,” the plan says under a section headed “Future Affordability of Housing.”

The Town Plan proposal goes on to say that the Affordable Housing Commission is beginning a separate affordable housing planning process that will incorporate resident opinions and ask such questions as “How can Norwich ensure that growth happens at a moderate pace and scale?”

“While Norwich residents generally favor the development of affordable housing, some are concerned that development will take place at too rapid a pace and too large a scale,” the plan says. “Through the planning process, the town will consider options for regulating growth to ensure it remains at the moderate level desired.”

In the “Goals, Objectives and Actions” section, the plan calls for the town to “explore and evaluate multiple strategies for encouraging the creation of affordable housing,” which could include consideration of such measures as density incentives and mixed-use development, it says.

Colin Calloway, a professor of history and Native American studies at Dartmouth College, said his and others’ concerns about the plan went beyond what the document contained.

Calloway said he was “not reassured” by the Planning Commission’s attempts to remove references to potential development, adding that the Town Plan’s opponents had a “lack of trust” in commission members.

“We cannot have trust in the group that’s been working on (the Town Plan) so far,” Marcia Calloway, an attorney who works at Dartmouth and is married to Colin Calloway, said later on Tuesday.

Others lamented that distrust and the resulting tenor of the public conversation on the town Listserv.

“A lot of the traffic on the Listserv has been negative, and I don’t appreciate it,” said Ralph Hybels, chairman of the Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

Later in his comments, Hybels noted that he and others on the appointed panel were giving their time for free. “We’re good people trying to volunteer to do good things for good people.”

Tuesday night’s gathering was the second part of the first public hearing on the Town Plan, with another public hearing required by statute, Selectman John Langhus said at the meeting’s outset.

Selectboard members shied away from giving their own opinions on the plan during the meeting. In an interview afterward, Chairwoman Mary Layton noted both the concerns of the opponents and the Planning Commission’s efforts to allay them.

“I don’t see anything controversial about it when you read the text,” she said of the plan, “but we want to reassure people.”

The Selectboard is scheduled to meet tonight and discuss how to proceed.

Board members may consider arranging future meetings on specific sections of the plan, such as energy or transportation, and also may mull the idea of putting an advisory vote on the Town Meeting warning, according to Langhus.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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