MANCHESTER — About 50 Manchester residents got to play at being municipal planning directors for a few hours at Town Hall Monday night, exploring where new development in town should ideally be steered and what should be encouraged.
The occasion was the kick-off of what will be a year-long process of gathering information and feedback to guide a review of the town's zoning districts and land use regulations, which haven't received a top-to-bottom reappraisal since they were first drawn up decades ago.
"This is an opportunity to step back and go to the drawing board and look at what should be going where, and where do we want to grow and how," said Brandy Saxton, the founder of PlaceSense, a land use planning and consulting firm based in Windsor. She has been hired by the town to assist in the review of the zoning districts and regulations through a $14,000 state grant obtained from the state's Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Broken up into six small groups, Saxton led the audience through a series of three exercises designed to determine what types of development were appropriate for Manchester and where they would ideally exist.
The first exercise was a two-part photo preference survey, where the audience watched a series of pictures of different types of buildings, ranging from a Burger King to a rural antiques shop, and asked to rate each for how well such a structure would fit either in the downtown core, the town core outside of the downtown area, or in a more rural part of town. The buildings — which were not ones located in Manchester — were rated on a scale of -2 to +2, from very inappropriate to very appropriate. The first half were commercial buildings, and a second group were varying kinds of residential structures.
After that, a second exercise was rolled out, where each table received a composite photo with three or four images and asked to assess what worked well and what features or aspects of the buildings could be improved. This time, the structures were local and familiar to most of the audience, although some were a little obscure, such as a barn that turned out to be part of a non-working farm in Weston, one participant concluded.
This prompted some intense discussion at several of the tables as the members of the groups crowded around the images and gave their feedback, which was written down on large yellow legal-sized pads. Each table then reported back to the entire group about their reactions.
One table received a group of pictures which included Bob's Diner and Dufresne Pond, among others. The diner won praise for its "classic design and function," said Bradley Myerson, who spoke for the group on the elements that worked well, adding that "every town needs a diner."
Betsy Bleakie reported on their group's conclusions on what could be improved. She said that list included improved visibility, not enough parking and that it was wasn't downtown, along with questioning the need for the "large black covered thing on the top of the diner" which led to a round of laughter from the room.
Dufresne Pond, meanwhile, won kudos for its location and wildlife, but looked run down.
More housing, more mixed uses where commercial and residential structures are side-by-side, and creating space for more light industrial applications were frequently brought up as key areas to explore.
A third exercise involved each small group drawing in a map of Manchester — excluding Manchester Village, which as an incorporated village within the town of Manchester has its own zoning regulations and wasn't a part of this exercise — to fill in what should be allowed and where in the Manchester of the future. That led to more detailed discussion where the complexity of trying to reach a workable blend of commercial and residential development that built off of what is already in place was revealed.
At one table, Ron Mancini and Bill Drunsic discussed locations for encouraging more housing and residential development, focusing on a section on Bonnet Street.
"If you have high density housing, you need access to the streets, and you just can't do that in a highly impacted area," Mancini was overheard saying to Janet Hurley, the town's planning director, as they studied the map of town.
"We have houses here, but there's land that could be used behind some of these buildings, Drunsic added.
Each group brought its map and pinned it to one of the walls at the Kilburn Meeting Room, where the gathering was held, and shared their conclusions.
Todd Nebraska said the group at his table focused on where mixed uses and light industrial developments could go. Depot Street was eyed as a potentially good location for more mixed use. More space for industrial purposes was also targeted as a need — maybe the area between Richville Road and Route 7A was worth looking at, he said. And if the golf driving range north of Town Hall on Route 7A were to ever change hands and go on the market, this might make a good area for light industry, he added.
Ramsay Gourd said the group he was part of talked mainly about housing and mixed use, and told the audience that they favored mixed uses throughout the town.
"We also thought there should be a clear break — right now the commercial area seems to drag on," he said. "There was a lot of talk about what would be our game plan as you as you are coming off the highway on the way to town."
Saxton said she and Hurley would be compiling the results of the night's exercises and posting them online — along with the maps and most of the photos used — so other residents could see these initial results and also weigh in with their views on what should be where.
Monday's kick-off meeting was the start of a roughly 12-month process which will lead to a draft report produced by May, 2017, that will be used by the planning commission in their deliberations about zoning districts and the Town Plan.
The next step in the process will be a series of walking tours conducted through various parts of town during May. The first of those will be held May 14 and will focus on the rural parts of town. Residents interested in participating should meet at Hildene, where they will board a shuttle bus and be taken to various locations to get a first hand look at areas emphasizing agriculture and open land. Later tours will highlight the downtown core, the areas currently zoned for industrial applications and finally, the Route 7A corridor and the areas north of town.
The results from Monday night were promising, Saxton said after the meeting.
"It was well-attended and a good discussion of the issues, and I think we're off to a good start," she said.