It shouldn't be this hard

Sometimes it seems that when it comes to development, Manchester refuses to do things the easy way. To a degree, that's simply democracy in action and it's much better to have everyone feel they had a chance to weigh in on the merits of a project that will alter the landscape, literally and figuratively, than to allow the bulldozers free rein. But sometimes it seems that there must be another way than the way we choose to do it.

We're referring here to the proposed Hampton Inn project, which had been sailing along fairly smoothly through the local and state regulatory process until last week, when the town's planning commission opted into the equation somewhat belatedly, it would seem at first blush. The planning commission's role, it seems to us, is to set forth the "big picture" guidelines, develop a long-term town plan and update it every so often, and create the context for which a zoning board - or in our case Design Review and Development Review Boards - can issue permits based on regulations developed in accordance with the town plan and the broad guidelines.

We don't object to the planning commission deciding that it needed to weigh in on the DRB's decision to grant local permits for the Hampton Inn project, but the timing is odd.

That proposed hotel and retail initiative is a big deal and will have many far-reaching consequences for the area, the majority of which we think will be beneficial. But as with anything on that scale, there will be winners and losers and it's better to explore those openly and fully to the best extent possible. The question is - why are the planners becoming involved now, rather than on the front end of the process? We understand that under the state's Act 250 permitting process, the planners have a role to play in submitting an advisory opinion. But it would seem to make more sense for that advisory opinion to occur before going to the state permit level. It's possible that this was an oversight on the Hampton Inn developer's part, but that's hard to picture, given the deliberate care and outreach that seems to have characterized their approach up to now.

In any event, the members of the planning commission could easily have attended the meetings of the Development Review Board like anybody else and kept themselves informed of what was planned for the former High Ridge Plaza site. If something set off alarm bells about the proposal, those concerns could have been discussed before a local zoning permit was issued. The same goes for other lodging owners who may be feeling queasy about seeing an 800-pound gorilla moving into the neighborhood, threatening the viability of their businesses.

On that last point, which elicited some passionate discussion at last week's planning commission meeting, we sympathize with the folks who see their world turning upside down. Change is never easy, but all businesses are facing the same challenges. For newspapers it's the challenge of adapting to a digital-based era that is upending the old, comfortable and familiar printed newspaper and static deadlines model. Now, the pressure is on full blast to get information out almost as soon as it comes in. The problem is the economics haven't caught up with the technology yet, and won't for awhile longer.

For our friends in the lodging business, who have worked hard to maintain their businesses across several decades, in some cases, we'll offer the thought that not only is change inevitable, but it's happening right before our eyes, and the old comfortable ways of doing things aren't going to work forever. Anyway, this is supposed to be a free enterprise, entrepreneurial society and economy. If a parcel of commercial property in the center of town is zoned for a commercial development, and that development meets the existing zoning regulations, it's not a compelling argument to oppose it solely on the grounds that it will drive existing businesses out of business.

As we have stated here before, we think a Hampton Inn-style lodging business will draw visitors who come to Manchester to shop and perhaps dine, but don't currently stay overnight here because they prefer to stay in a branded lodging establishment for one reason or another. Many visitors to Manchester are already staying elsewhere, in Rutland or Bennington. If they stayed here, they might spend more money here, which would help everybody, as well as the town's tax base. And that by itself isn't going to destroy the fabric of the town. Nor have we addressed the issue of larger groups of visitors, who want to stay in one place all together, and for which right now, there aren't many options, apparently.

Back to our main point, however; the peculiar timing of the planning commission's hearing on the proposed Hampton Inn. There should be a clear and straightforward road map that spells out what a hopeful developer has to follow in order to obtain a permit. These projects are enormously costly and risky. It should not be rocket science for a municipality to set forth the sequence of events, which, if successfully navigated, lead to a predictable outcome. It was our sense that this "road map" already existed. One of the major criticisms leveled at the state as a whole is that we say in one breath that we are a business-friendly state (despite all the polls and ratings that suggest otherwise), that we want opportunities for young people, and that if a would-be business is willing to play by our rules, they are welcome. But too often it doesn't seem to play out that way, and applications drag on and on until one side or the other gets tired of it all.

No one wants a major development that may turn toxic and ugly. If the planners were cut out of the process, then that was a mistake. But if they typically wouldn't have come into the picture after a local permit has already been issued, then it's odd they held a hearing now, to hear the same presentation their zoning counterparts heard a month ago.


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