MANCHESTER >> The first of four planned "walk and talk" tours of different aspects of the town began last Saturday with an exploration of several area farms and agricultural uses, part of a comprehensive town-led review of existing zoning districts.
Three others will highlight the downtown core and the industrial zoned areas this week before winding up with a look at residential possibilities on Route 7A on Monday, May 23.
"We're going to be talking about a lot of abstract concepts for most of the time, so we thought a great way to start was to actually go out and look at some places, look at some land and see how it is being used in various places around Manchester as sort of a grounding," said Brandy Sexton, a consultant hired by the town through a state grant to assist with the eventual development of recommendations to revise the existing zoning maps and allowed uses. The review is anticipated to continue through the remainder of the year with an eye towards having a final draft ready for possible adoption in May 2017.
Saturday's tour began at Hildene, where about 20 townspeople and officials boarded shuttle buses for Earth Sky Time Community Farm on Route 7A on the southern end of town, before continuing on to Equinox Valley Nursery a short distance away. The final stop on the tour was the new sustainable agriculture project Hildene is developing along River Road.
At Earth Sky Time, Oliver Levis, one of the farm's founders, told the group how he had gotten started in farming when he returned to the area in 2004 and began building the operation which now includes vegetables, veggie burgers and a bakery business. It's been a learning experience, he said.
"I was trying to grow everything, but that is not my strength," he said while conducting a tour of one of his greenhouses where he and a team of farm interns grow vegetables throughout the year. "Instead, we focus on very top quality vegetables, like heirloom tomatoes, and really high-end salad mix year-round."
Earth Sky Time has for several years run a CSA, or community supported agriculture operation, where subscribers paid an upfront fee and picked up fresh vegetables throughout the summer, in addition to selling their produce at several area farmers markets. They sell at six of them currently. Now they operate their own farm store where customers can show up when it's convenient for them and buy as much as they may need for that week, Levis said.
The store is attached to the area where their baking oven sits which produces the well-known breads the farm has been making for the past several years and are widely distributed locally.
From there, the tour headed for Equinox Valley Nursery, a short drive down Ormsby Hill, where owner Roger Preuss gave an overview of his wide-ranging operation which he and his family have run since 1979.
They raise crops such as pumpkins, squash and corn, along with a plant and flower nursery in several greenhouses. About 30 acres of the 66 acre property is under cultivation where no pesticides are used "Everything is organic but (we) don't label it as such," he said.
To be certified as an organic farmer is a demanding process which prohibits the use of any synthetic fertilizer for three years before harvesting a purely organic crop.
Equinox Valley Nursery employs five full-time workers in addition to family members, down from the 12 full-time and up to 25 part-time workers they may have had on hand during an earlier phase of their business, Preuss said.
"Things have changed over the years — the family steps forward and does most of it," he said.
He pointed out the "plant-a-row" program he is involved in with the town's Food Cupboard where they cultivate crops for distribution to those in need. They also do a thriving business in the fall with their Pumpkin Patch, where displays of Hallowe'en themed figures help lure in foliage traffic. It's an example of the versatility and flexibility that has helped the business survive and grow.
"In Vermont, you have to use as many hands as you can to make a living," he said. "We capitalize on the pumpkins in the fall."
The "walk and talk" concluded with a visit to the "Dene" farm along River Road where Hildene is setting up an agricultural operation designed to grow their own produce for events staged on the 412-acre estate and also as an educational program for students from Burr and Burton Academy. The students have a garden area of their own under cultivation, said Seth Bongartz, Hildene's president and the chairman of the Burr and Burton board of trustees. Visitors to the Lincoln Family home are also able to tour the large greenhouse, which is divided into a heated and unheated section.
The farm expects to add animals to its mix soon, Bongartz said.
Visits to three different approaches to farming and uses of agricultural lands finished, the group gathered at one end of the Hildene greenhouse to discuss their observations and takeaways.
Currently, the farming and rural residentially zoned districts make up 9,117 acres in the town. The forest and recreation district which surrounds it to the east and west add another 13,692 acres. Together, these two zoning districts represent 93 percent of the town's land. Manchester Village, an incorporated village within the town of Manchester, has its own set of zoning ordinances and is not part of this zoning review.
Permitted uses in the farming and rural residential district include community facilities, residential uses, agriculture, forestry and home daycare, with other conditional uses such as camprgrounds, golf courses, bed and breakfast lodgings and nursing homes allowed as well.
The purpose of the walk and talks and the entire comprehensive review of the zoning districts, which kicked off with a community meeting on April 25 at Town Hall for a "big picture" analysis, was to see if the zoning districts, first established in 1970 and modified very slightly since, still aligned well with 21st century realities, said Brandy Sexton.
"It's time to at least look at it and ask if it's still doing what we want it to do," she said. "What changes might be useful to move it closer in the direction of the town plan?"
The discussion that followed centered on the cost of land and the fact the two-acre minimum lot size meant that over the years, land once formerly farmed or set aside for agricultural use had been sub-divided for residential uses. The two-acre minimum was far too small to allow anyone to make a living farming, said Ed Morrow, a town resident.
This led to a discussion of whether zoning ordinances should do more to encourage clustering on homes on smaller individual lots and closer together, to free up more area for farming. A "density bonus" could be incorporated that rewards developers for clustering the homes, allowing them to build more houses for eventual sale and the opportunity for a greater potential return on their investment, Sexton said.
The conversation also touched on another widely identified need in the town for more affordable workforce housing and the relationship with land zoned for agriculture.
The number of small lots in the farming and rural residential zones are worth a closer look, Janet Hurley, the town's zoning administrator and planning director, said afterwards.
"There are some large lots ... there are an awful lot of smaller, residential lots and those are not conducive to farming so why are they in a district whose purpose is to provide for farming," she said.
Another area worth looking closely at, Hurley said, are the two transient overlay districts, essentially strips of land along Route 7A north of town and Routes 11/30 going west toward Winhall. These overlays allow for other uses and additional regulatory standards to be superimposed on existing zoning restrictions.
"What I see as an issue there is that they are strips," she said. "It encourages what would not be considered smart growth, which is the whole focus of Vermont planning law," designed to encourage development in village centers, she added.
Following the "walk and talk" tours a "Taking Stock" meeting will be scheduled in June, and several alternative scenarios for revising the town's zoning district map and standards will be developed over the summer. A "Moving Forward" meeting will be held in September to present the alternatives and invite feedback that the Planning Commission will use to select the preferred alternative.
They will be followed by more meetings early next year to review the work done by that point and to lead on to the final draft, slated for a possible adoption next year.