Nothing of this magnitude should be rushed through until every aspect of its impacts is thoroughly vetted.
The proposal came to light in late April. Oddly, two people promoting the project in the first news reports work for the Town, one in the economic development office, the other a PR retainer also being retained by the developers. Who are our town officials working for, the developer or the community? It has been suggested that the hotel would be a boon for the hockey tournament housing it could provide. A few short weeks later, we learned that Riley Rink had cancelled its summer ice sessions - hardly demonstrating a need for an inn for that use, at the very least. If Bennington and Rutland have facilities to house such groups, let them reap those benefits. It's not likely that youth hockey teams are going to spend a lot of time, or money, shopping and dining.
An editorial in this newspaper stated "this week will be the first installment of the permit hearings." Exactly one public hearing was held.
That hearing elicited numerous questions from townspeople, interestingly almost none from town board members. It seemed logical then that the hearing process would have to be extended to allow a thorough public review. What a shock to learn the next day that the Development Review Board had closed the hearing. In short, that was the end of the public process despite numerous unanswered questions.
The DRB ruled in favor of the project on June 23. The Act 250 hearing was scheduled for three days later, with the public having no advance notice of this hearing. Anyone wishing Act 250 party status must notify the commission prior to such hearing; clearly interested parties had no opportunity to do so. The Planning Commission had requested town staff ask for a postponement or at least a continuation of that hearing because on such short notice, some of its own members could not attend. This request was not accommodated.
This newspaper insists that the Planning Commission is a Johnny-come-lately, a spoiler, in the review process when in fact one of its major functions is to provide a formal review of an Act 250 application as it relates to the Town Plan. By state statute, it is the PC which determines this, not the DRB. The relevancy of this proposal to the Town Plan is of ultimate importance. It matters hugely whether the design, traffic flow, impact, scope and economic need for such a huge project fit in appropriately with town economic and aesthetic viability. This project was never displayed in the local media so that residents could view the ungainly architectural elements proposed. Most people are unaware that the proposal includes three new retail buildings more than two times as large as what currently exists, a dramatic altering of the townscape. Nor that every piece of greenery will be bulldozed to stark flatness. Or that the seven-foot buffer fence and replacement trees cannot screen the houses in Hillvale from the peering eyes and piercing lights on the second and third floors of the proposed hotel. Not to mention that the green buffer consists of deciduous trees that are barren for six long months.
Several hundred people participated in vital discussions during the Manchester 2020 process, from which a long list of desirable new services, programs, business opportunities emerged. Never once were additional hotel rooms or retail outlets suggested. Keep in mind that the developer does not yet own this property and won't buy it until it gets what it wants. We need to have a say in what Manchester wants, not simply acquiesce to what the developer insists on.
The policy that "anything goes" for economic development's sake is not only short-sighted but ultimately harmful to a town that has drawn visitors for well over a century because of its unique natural and historical features.
With this new hotel/retail complex, Manchester can no longer hold a place in the category of special Vermont towns like Woodstock and Stowe. Let's hope Manchester's Planning Commission gives this project the study due such a monumental displacement of our economic, scenic and historic values.
It may be too late but it's worth fighting for. After all, democracy is not just about having a say; it's about differing ideas being listened to and included in the ultimate decisions.
Kathe Dillmann is a resident of Manchester