Busy corridors cause division in Dummerston


DUMMERSTON -- After an in-depth study of future land use in the heavily traveled Route 30 and Route 5 corridors, Dummerston Planning Commission finished its work with a unanimous vote and a new map.

What it all means, however, is up for debate.

That's true even among the commission's members, one of whom has resigned. And the issue now has been turned over to the Selectboard, which must solicit still more public comment.

But Planning Commission Chairman Sam Farwell maintains that the commission reached the only consensus possible on a complicated, contentious issue.

"I think this is truly the best that we can do at this time," Farwell said.

He also noted that the commission's proposed land-use map -- if it becomes official -- is up for revision again in the not-so-distant future.

"It's a living document," Farwell said. "We're going to be updating it within the next five years."

The town-plan update approved in September 2010 called for a seven-member study committee to take a close look at the Route 30 and Route 5 corridors and to recommend changes in land-use regulations.

But in 2011, the committee produced two reports. There was a "majority report," approved on a 4-3 vote, that largely kept the corridors' rural-commercial zoning intact.

A "minority" report recommended significant changes and employed several additional zoning designations including commercial, residential and conservation.

"There were dramatic differences in the philosophy and the sense of what was appropriate," Farwell said. "The (study) committee did not manage to resolve these differences with anything other than a majority vote, and it was a close one."

The Selectboard at the time did not choose either the majority or minority report, instead kicking the matter to the planning commission, which was tasked with first developing town-plan amendments and then recommending zoning changes.

An $8,000 state grant has aided the commission's work. But Farwell knew from the beginning that it would not be easy.

There were two public forums on the town plan in June. Those generated a lot of interest but gave commission members no clear consensus on the matter, Farwell recalled.

The town-plan amendments also were the subject of a public hearing in September. There was surprisingly low turnout at that session, with fewer than 15 members of the public attending.

The planning commission did not make any further changes to its town-plan proposal before presenting it to the Selectboard. And, overall, Farwell acknowledges that "some people would say it's pretty similar" to the 2011 majority report for the two corridors.

In the Route 30 corridor, the planning commission's proposal offers a few tweaks such as placing a small parcel near Maple Valley Ski Area into a conservation area.

Otherwise, "we didn't change much else in Route 30," Farwell said.

In the Route 5 area, both the majority and minority maps in 2011 had recommended taking land between Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River out of rural commercial and placing it in a "resource" district. The planning commission has adopted that change.

Additionally, "there were some adjustments -- some minor changes," Farwell said. That includes creating a rural-residential district along Dummerston Station Road.

But even minor changes can cause controversy, and Farwell said the planning commission has heard diametrically opposing opinions.

"People were unhappy with it both because we left too much in rural commercial and because we took too much out," Farwell said. "I think we succeeded in displeasing everybody."

In addition to the map changes, the commission also proposed some minor language changes to the town plan's land-use section.

It's the map, though, that is attracting the most attention and will guide any future zoning changes. At a recent Selectboard meeting, Dummerston resident Jody Normandeau said it was her understanding that the planning commission's unanimous vote on the proposed corridor map "really doesn't mean anything."

"I am under the impression that the only reason that it was a unanimous vote is that everybody on the planning commission got sick of dealing with it and fighting about it and decided that they wanted to get on with it and do something else," Normandeau said.

Farwell disagreed, saying the commission's vote was "quite significant" while also acknowledging that no member of the body was happy with the outcome.

"You can look at the (meeting) minutes for how we arrived at this proposal," he said. "We tried a lot of different things, and this seemed to be the only thing that we could get consensus on."

That consensus, however, was fragile.

Planning commission member Bill Schmidt submitted his resignation this month, saying the "time is right" for him to depart given other volunteer activity and the demands of his business.

But Schmidt also noted completion of the commission's corridor work, calling it an "agonizing process."

"The result is a corridors map that I cannot support," Schmidt wrote to the Selectboard. "For me, the disconnect between it and what the 2010 town plan calls for in land uses in the corridors is much too great. I supported the passing of the amendments on to you only because the planning commission -- divided as it was in many of its districting decisions -- had reached its limit in what it could do on the subject."

"The amendments therefore are now in your hands to consider and act on," Schmidt added in his e-mail to the Selectboard.

At this point, it is unclear whether the Selectboard will accept the planning commission's corridor map or attempt to make further changes.

"I think we have to talk about that," said Zeke Goodband, Selectboard chairman.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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