Lee Krohn, 55, Manchester's planning director for the past 24 years, will be leaving that post sometime in mid-October and taking the position of senior planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
Krohn has also been the town's zoning administrator for the past seven or eight years, and a decision on filling that post will be another one town leaders will have to decide on.
In a wide-ranging interview earlier this week, Krohn said this seemed to be a good time to try something new and take on a new challenge.
"I feel really optimistic about this community," Krohn said. "I feel like I can leave knowing this community is in good shape."
In his new job, he will be working with a staff of about a dozen colleagues, which will be a definite change of pace from the one-person shop he ran as planning director and zoning administrator in Manchester. The Chittenden County Regional Commission is based in Winooski, next door to Burlington, and Krohn described the work there as likely to be more broad-based and "big picture" than some of individual and focused issues that came his way in the course of his present post. Those might include such questions as whether a sign was in compliance with zoning regulations or whether it was within the town bylaws for a resident to expand a garage.
Leaving a town and a job after nearly a quarter century will not be easy, he said, noting all the connections he had built up over that time, which included membership in the town's volunteer fire department.
"I felt it was time for a change," he said. "It's a really tough, emotional decision; I've been rooted in this community in many ways."
Krohn arrived for his first day of work at the town hall, then located on Depot Street, on July 1, 1989 .He had been a teacher at the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., and was also serving as the chairman of that town's planning commission. It was an exciting time to be in the planning and land-use field in Vermont, as numerous development projects were in play or getting off the ground and several towns were scrambling to bring order and coherence to how they would balance the thrust of the new pressures and opportunities with maintaining the traditional look of the Vermont landscape.
"This looked to be a great place to be in the thick of things," Krohn said, referring to Manchester. "I was looking for a challenge."
A challenge, or rather challenges, were in store, and Krohn found himself often navigating between advocates of new development and the status quo. Former town manager Jeff Wilson recalled interviewing Krohn for the job, which needed filling when Jim Sullivan, the town's first planning director, left to become the senior planner with the Bennington County Regional Commission, of which he is now the executive director.
"There was an enormous amount of activity and controversy - we were still in the process of building and refining the town plan and the bylaws in addition this new-found phenomenon of retail outlet stores," Wilson said. "Lee showed an enormous amount of interest, energy and enthusiasm for the job."
That sense of commitment didn't end with the job itself, but carried over into other community activities, he said.
"That made a big impression on me," Wilson added.
Twenty-four years is long enough to offer for many highlight-reel moments, and Krohn recalled several. Pulling together the elements to create the town green is one that came relatively early. Before it was the town green, it was the site of an automotive garage and dealership. It took five years to arrange the financing and environmental clearances but the result was a greenspace in the center of town which is now used for a variety of town events, as well as a quiet place to get away from the traffic.
"People who have recently come here have no idea of the effort it took to buy the property and raise the money," Krohn said. "It was an enormous undertaking."
There were many other issues that entered his in-tray over the years. One that stands out was the back and forth with the Stewarts convenience store chain, which took over the spot formerly occupied by Leo's Motors. It took three tries before Stewarts came up with a design for the store that worked for the town planners, but the end result was worth the effort, he said. There were the apparent smaller bore issues, like shielding lights so their glare did not spill over unnecessarily. Another was the effort to remove large, enormous freestanding signs that used to clutter up the town. Such fine points may seem minor compared to other questions and bigger developments, but they can have a large bearing on the quality of life, look and feel of a town, and aren't inconsequential, he said.
Hovering over all of those, however, is his long-term work on the Roundabout, which opened for traffic last December and saw its leftover "punch list" items taken care of earlier this year. Krohn worked closely with the citizen's Transportation Initiative Committee which helped develop the idea of the Roundabout to replace the functionally obsolete intersection of Routes 7A and 11/30 semi-humorously known as "Malfunction Junction" and worked with other town leaders to secure federal and state financing, as well as pushing for removing unsightly telephone and utility lines which used to clutter up the main intersection in town, along with its infamous blinking yellow light. It took the better part of 20 years to get to this point, but he can move on knowing the heavy lifting on that one is done, he said.
Over the course of his tenure, the very nature of the planning director job has changed and evolved. What used to be a three person department is now essentially the responsibility of one person, with the help of some administrative support. He's taken on an expanded the role to include such things as tree warden and land conservation.
Whether the town continues to fold all those functions into one position, or breaks them up, is a question that the select board will start wrestling with on Friday, said John O'Keefe, the current town manager.
The zoning administrator post is more of a day-to-day kind of position and planning is usually, though not always, more longer term in nature, he said. Hiring two people probably isn't in the cards, and but he and the select board will likely look at several scenarios, he said.
"Right now, all the options are the table," O'Keefe said. "We plan to move quickly, but not too quickly, so we get the right person."
In any event, Krohn will leave large shoes to fill, O'Keefe added.
"Lee has had a huge impact on the way the town functions and looks and he leaves a large legacy," he said, likening him to a "franchise player" who will be difficult to replace.
Despite the roller coaster ride of ups and downs and conflicts that came with the job, Krohn said it was all worth it.
"Manchester is a town worth caring about, and how it looks is important," he said. "It's not about being elitist, it's about understanding how the look, feel, and function all work together.
"My whole goal was to help make this place better than when I found it," he said.