MANCHESTER >> It's been a long time coming.
Manchester's zoning districts and land use regulations were first drawn up in the 1970s and 1980s, and while there have been amendments and adjustments made over the years, there hasn't been an overall, comprehensive review to determine if those boundary lines and allowable uses still aligned well with present day realities and possible future trends.
On Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in the Kilburn Meeting Room at Town Hall, the town's Planning Commission will host a kick-off meeting for what is likely to be year-long process of reviewing and revising the town's land use regulations, said Janet Hurley, Manchester's town planner.
"We haven't looked at the zoning districts since they were established in 1970," she said. "There have been small changes and tweaks to them, but no comprehensive look at them since then. The ordinances haven't been comprehensively looked at from the bottom up since 1983."
And a lot has happened since then, she added.
Take the farming and rural residential districts, for instance. There are now some very small lot sizes that have been introduced over the decades, making those areas less well suited to agricultural or working land applications, Hurley said.
Has the town set aside enough acreage for possible light industrial development? Maybe, but probably not, she said.
Then there's the question of housing, which has been a front burner issue for awhile as recognition has grown over the fact that renting an apartment or owning a home in Manchester isn't easy or within many people's budgets, especially for younger members of the workforce. Should more mixed uses be allowed in Manchester's downtown core, and should residential housing be among them? If so, the allowable housing densities will need adjustment.
Building housing in Vermont or Manchester priced for the middle and lower ends of the market is difficult at best, assuming a developer wants to recoup their investment and show a little profit at the end. State energy regulations and other costs often make that prohibitive, Hurley said.
"You can't change the energy standards and other costs, but we can increase density," she said. "To what extent should we do that to make it viable in Manchester?"
These and other questions may be among those batted around during Monday's kick off meeting, where residents will hear a short presentation from Brandy Saxton, a consultant hired by the town through a state planning grant received from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Saxton is a land use planner, founder and owner of Placesense, a consulting firm based in Windsor, Vt.
Her initial presentation will serve to introduce the project and its full scope, as well as to talk about the connection between the town plan and land use regulations. The bulk of the evening will be spent in small group discussions around what people want to see in terms of what future development should look like in Manchester — what is appropriate and what isn't, she said.
It will conclude with the smaller groups sharing their ideas with the larger body in attendance Monday night. For those who can't make it to the event, the questions and main points will be posted online at the project's website: www.placesense.com/manchester.
Monday's discussion will lead to four "walk and talk" tours through different parts of town next month.
One is planned for May 14 to explore the rural parts of town and the issues related to farming. Tentative plans call for those interested to converge at Hildene where a shuttle bus will take them from there to different points, mostly in the southern end of town where there are more working farms. Another is planned for lunchtime on Wednesday, May 18, to cover the downtown core. A third one is planned for Friday, May 20, for the industrial area around Airport Road. The final one is scheduled for Monday, May 23, for the Route 7A corridor and the areas north of downtown. Specific times and places for the walking tours will be announced later.
The discussions will continue on through the summer and fall to wrap up the findings and recommendations, Saxton said.
"You sort of reach a breaking point where you've been amending the regulations for so long, that no more patching will work," she said. "We want to hear from as many people as possible as early as possible."
That point was echoed by Greg Boshart, the chairman of the planning commission, who hopes those interested will attend early and often as the commission goes through the process of re-thinking the regulations.
Getting involved on the front end will help members of the public to better understand the ultimate goals of the project, he said.
"I think it's a good opportunity for people to get involved in deciding what the decisions are about zoning instead of just reacting," he said. "This way, they can actually be part of the process."