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Norwich, Randolph Town Plans Flop



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Norwich — Access to state grants will continue to be restricted for both Norwich and Randolph after the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission found that proposed town plans in both communities failed to meet the state’s legal standards for regional approval.

Norwich was cited, in part, for its failure to set a goal for multifamily, or affordable, housing.

The town plans still remain in effect for both communities, but the lack of regional approval means Norwich and Randolph will be unable to receive municipal planning grants, participate in the Vermont Village and Downtown tax credit program, or receive deference in the siting of local energy projects under Act 174, the 2016 law that governs solar and wind projects.

The towns will have to decide whether to tweak their plans — a process that includes three publicly warned meetings spread out over a period of months — or continue to operate without those and a handful of other benefits.

When Two Rivers voted against the plans during a Sept. 26 meeting, Norwich and Randolph became the only towns in the 30-town membership to have plans that were denied. Currently, 23 towns have approved plans, four (Corinth, Plymouth, Thetford and Topsham) have expired plans, and Bridgewater has a plan in the approval process, according to a database maintained by Two Rivers.

The Norwich plan, which was recommended for approval by Two Rivers staff before it unanimously was rejected by the board, “failed to mention or address a housing goal ... as it relates to multifamily housing,” Two Rivers Chairman Gerald Fredrickson wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee. “The board also failed to find that the plan was compatible with the TRORC Regional Plan, a requirement” under law.

The letter said the lack of compatibility “was due to the plan’s lack of specificity in Land Use Area descriptions and policies.”

As he prepared to update town officials about the decision, Durfee on Tuesday said the Selectboard will decide whether to pursue the designation now or in the next cycle of updates.

“The important thing to understand is that the town hasn’t done anything wrong,” Durfee said. “There wasn’t an oversight. The testament to that is that the staff report from Two Rivers recommended approval. It’s boiling down to an interpretation.”

Two Rivers Executive Director Peter Gregory said on Monday that, though the staff recommended approval, it wasn’t intended to be a full-throated endorsement.

“The staff pointed out the deficiencies,” he said. He also said the staff expected that some identified problems would be addressed during the town’s internal revision process, but that ultimately, they were not.

The vote doesn’t mean that the plan is incompatible with the regional plan, just that the Two Rivers board couldn’t make an affirmative finding that it was compatible.

Norwich Selectboard Chairman John Pepper said that, while the board hasn’t yet discussed the issue, he is personally leaning toward reworking the town plan as quickly as possible.

“It’s likely that we’ll not want to ignore it,” he said. “There’s too many benefits. ... I’m pretty sure the taxpayers won’t appreciate our ignoring our eligibility to access these grants, no matter what the amount is.”

Pepper had strong words for the commission.

“The feedback has been hazy at best and I am — personally — frustrated that so much collective time and energy was wasted,” he said. “I’d like to hear how the region benefits from this.”

Gregory said the commitment to affordable housing is particularly important in Norwich.

“Given the proximity of Norwich to the region’s large employment centers, they can’t help but be engaged in these discussions that are necessary for the region as a whole,” he said.

In addition to grant eligibility, Woodstock-based Two Rivers also cites other benefits in recommending that town plans seek regional approval. Having approval makes it easier for development projects to pass Act 250 review, and the lack of an approved plan can also be a barrier for disbursement of disaster relief and other grants through the Community Development Block Grant program, which requires that local and regional plans be consistent with one another.

Durfee said the town doesn’t have any live, or planned, grant applications that would be affected by the lack of approval, and said the Norwich Planning Commission would move forward with implementing the town plan, which was adopted in July.

Affordable housing has been a major topic of discussion for the community in recent years, and will continue to be regardless of the outcome of the regional approval process, he said.

In Randolph, Selectboard member Perry Armstrong said he didn’t yet know the basis for the rejection, but that he expected to learn more during upcoming meetings of the Planning Board and the Selectboard.

During their September meeting, Two Rivers members expressed concerns “about the (Randolph) plan’s weakness in dealing with multi-family housing, child care and earth resources,” according to meeting minutes.

The Randolph proposal had some support among members, but they ultimately voted it down, 16-8, “due to missing language addressing all statutorily required goals.”

The Norwich Selectboard is expected to discuss next steps during a meeting scheduled for this evening, while the Randolph Selectboard next meets on Monday.

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