Our opinion: Manchester makes a choice

Manchester's future will in no small part be influenced by what the Manchester Select Board decides to do with the zoning ordinance and map the Planning Commission has spent two years crafting, starting with a public hearing on the proposal on Tuesday.

This is the final boarding call for the public process on that decision.

Here's what you'll see and hear on Tuesday: The Planning Commission and planning and zoning director Janet Hurley will present the ordinance and accompanying map to to Select Board members, who must then weigh their own views and those of their constituents in deciding whether to adopt the new bylaws.

What happens next is up to the Select Board. But it's also up to you. Your input has been and still is important in this process. Even you've never glanced at a zoning map before, or if you're just learning about this, there's still time to get informed ahead of time. Copies of the plan are on display at town hall and available online at the town website — click on the calendar, then on the March 20 Select Board meeting, then on more details. You can even bring a copy home (though there's a $10 charge to defray printing costs).

At the risk of oversimplifying the commission's work, the revised zoning ordinance and map is an attempt to do several things: Simplify what had become an complicated and cumbersome plan; promote more mixed commercial and residential use in downtown; encourage the development of "workforce housing" units around the perimeter of downtown to create a walkable, vibrant town center; and encourage conservation and discourage sprawl in open agricultural spaces, and protect natural resources.

The process has been public, and in the last two months the Planning Commission has held a pair of public hearings, and used two of its regularly scheduled meetings to address concerns raised by residents.

The challenge for the Planning Commission has been balancing the need for workplace housing — one- and two-bedroom units and smaller houses that single people and young families with two incomes can afford — with the desire to maintain the scale, history and Vermont charm that make Manchester unique.

Despite its many advantages, Manchester is in a position of need when it comes to workplace housing.

Much of Manchester's housing stock is owned or sought by seasonal residents and renters. What's often available to year-long residents, for rent or for sale, are older homes, and with older housing stock comes the costs of updating roofing, heating, plumbing, electricity and energy efficiency. That can be expensive. And not everyone has the know-how or the time to fix an old house, or the money to pay people who do.

It's a significant hurdle to the town's economic growth and development.

We know there are concerns about whether new construction is going to change Manchester's "character," in ways that it won't be able to control once developers put up brand spanking new housing units. Such concerns should not be dismissed out of hand. But it's a familiar quandary, isn't it: On one hand, there's the risk of doing something that might backfire; on the other, the risk of doing nothing, and missing an opportunity.

The question for Manchester and its Select Board, then, goes a lot deeper than whether new construction should be allowed five more feet of height on Main Street in Manchester Center, or in what districts the town should encourage commercial development. Rather, it's this: Does the plan protect the qualities that make Manchester unique without turning it into a museum exhibit? Does it promote new growth, fairly, responsibly and in ways that reflect the Manchester that the majority of residents want to see?

That goes to the very identity of Manchester — what it is, and what residents think it should be.

That question has been asked a lot in the past two years. It was at the heart of the Northshire Economic Development Survey and the update of the town plan that was approved by the Select Board last year. It was asked when the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce dissolved, when the Manchester Business Association sprang up in its place, when the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce committed to expanding to the Northshire, and when The Shires of Vermont Destination Marketing Association teamed up with the Chamber on the visitors' guide. It was central to a planning charrette on the downtown Manchester's future conducted last year.

It's been at the heart of debate and discussion as stakeholders ponder how to transition Manchester's decades-long reliance upon retail into a more diversified economy. It's been central in efforts to promote events drawing visitors here, too, from sports tournaments to ITVFest to the coming Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival.

These are big questions: Who are we? What would we change about our town if we could? And what would we never want to change?

The zoning proposal, then, is the Planning Commission's attempt to answer those questions and move forward with a plan that will carry Manchester forward. We think it's a positive step, but we're admittedly one voice, and this is a decision the entire town must make.

That last step in that process starts with you.


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