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This commentary is by Caleb Magoon, chair of the Lamoille County Planning Commission.
In the several years I have been the chair of the Lamoille County Planning Commission Board of Directors, I’ve seldom seen robust participation in planning. Perhaps that is changing.
Recent growth in the county has shined a bright light on the importance of planning and the role it plays in how our towns and villages look, feel, and function. Planning is having a moment and I’m excited to see how new energy and increased participation could result in a larger group of people having greater input on the future of our municipalities.
Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of our towns saw the growth of the previous decades wane. In the early 2000s, officials in many towns took action to reverse the trend. Most plans were altered, adding stronger language to encourage economic development. Municipalities eased their zoning to facilitate the rehabilitation of our struggling downtowns.
While these changes did ultimately have a positive effect, planning is a long process, and the effects often take a while to be seen. Planning also has less of an impact when not much development is happening. It can be years before the effects of planning changes are seen.
Now, Lamoille County is seeing both economic growth and an influx of new residents. A mix of climate refugees, Covid migrants, and city escapees have all figured out what we have always known: The place we live is something special. But the intense growth has created an even greater need for services, housing and employees to work in local businesses.
While the growth has largely been viewed as a positive, it hasn’t all been roses. Residents have been surprised by the speed and scale of development and have raised concerns about aesthetics, transportation, land use, the effect on our schools, and much more. These concerns have spurred an increased dialogue in how development is progressing in our towns.
For our part, the Lamoille County Planning Commission has seen increased interest in the limited role we play in the Act 250 and Section 248 permitting processes. Some members of the public have incorrectly assumed that we “approve” or “disapprove” of projects. Folks have also submitted comments to us about projects under our review. As a result, we have moved to educate members of the community on the matter.
Our scope and input are very limited. We determine only whether a project conforms with our regional plan. The real work for us is in the planning, laying out our priorities for growth in the county. When an Act 250 permit comes before us, we determine only whether or not the project fits into the growth we previously determined we want to see happen.
We often find ourselves steering citizens with valuable input on these projects to the Act 250 Commission or the Public Utility Commission, ultimately the bodies that need to hear those comments.
Yes, the increased interest in development and the planning process has, at times, caused confusion. But the increased participation at the local and regional level is a huge positive for planning in the region.
One challenge we face is helping residents realize the slow pace of planning and that changes do not see immediate results. This can be disappointing. Current development is the result of planning that was done over the last two decades. Given the limited participation over that period, it’s important that people who want to see changes in development stick with the process for the long haul.
Often boards aren’t as diverse as they might be because those who participate are members of the public who are able to volunteer the significant time commitment planning can take. It’s important that these boards are encouraged to be as diverse as possible and that members of the public show up to weigh in on issues, so decisions are not made by a small, monolithic group of people.
We are lucky to have a lot of economic development going on in our area. Influencing that development is the prerogative of the citizens. Much can be done through planning and zoning to determine allowable business types, setbacks, aesthetics, green space, and much more. Local planning can decide if a certain property on the edge of town should remain rural farmland or if it is ideal housing or other commercial enterprises.
These are decisions we make as a community, largely at the town/village level. Regional planning, on the other hand (Lamoille County Planning Commission), seeks to gain consensus from the towns on how our region should function, look and feel as a whole. We link together transportation, infrastructure and the landscape while coming up with priorities for our whole region.
When I became chair of the planning commission, I got on the phone with George Robson and asked for some advice. George was a long time Morristown resident, had a career in economic development, and served on a number of local boards and commissions, including chairing the Lamoille County Planning Commission board. His words were prophetic, stating that planning and economic development go hand and hand. He told me that you can’t have good economic development without good planning, simple as that.
Here in Vermont, we all care about how our villages, towns, and environment look and feel. We all get a say, and planning is one of the important places where our say matters.
If you want a say, be active in your community in any way you can. You don’t need to be a board member; you can simply attend meetings and have your voice be heard. You can join the dialogue (we hope respectfully) in the newspaper and on Front Porch Forum or at a soccer game.
If you don’t join in making those decisions, someone else will make them for you. The future of our region is bright, but let’s all make sure it’s the future we all want to see here. Let’s mold a Vermont we want to see for the future and for our kids.