Morristown could still rejoin the Lamoille County Planning Commission, but it might not be a happy reunion.
Chris Towne, vice chair of the Morristown Select Board, made a motion at the board meeting Sept. 3 to rejoin the regional commission.
That sparked a long, disgruntled discussion, as residents and several people associated with the municipal government voiced longstanding grievances against the regional commission and its staff.
Those concerns, and a years-long turf war between town staffers and the regional commission’s employees, led the Morristown Select Board and Morrisville Village Board of Trustees to pull the town and village governments out of the commission in late 2016.
Ultimately, after more than half an hour of discussion, the board voted on Sept. 3 to table Towne’s motion, and asked him and board chair Bob Beeman to continue working with Tasha Wallis, executive director at the regional commission, to hammer out exactly what rejoining would look like.
“I remain cautiously optimistic that we can come to a mutual understanding of how the town and LCPC can work together in the best interest of our community,” Towne told the News & Citizen on Sept. 9.
“I am still in favor of rejoining LCPC,” he reiterated.
“I’d really like to see our board be able to work with the LCPC,” Beeman said at the meeting last week.
Towne said a primary goal of rejoining the regional commission is regaining “designated downtown” status for Morrisville.
The downtown program run by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development offers expanded access to and priority consideration for tax credits and grants, among other benefits. Morristown lost its downtown designation early in 2017. Now, Morristown officials want it back, and one requirement is membership in the regional planning commission.
The downtown designation can be especially beneficial for organizations such as Lamoille Housing Partnership, trying to add more affordable housing, but board member Eric Dodge said he’s heard from several developers who question the need for the downtown designation, and others who reported unhappy experiences with the regional commission.
Paul Griswold, former chair of the town planning council, wondered why the regional commission won’t simply rubber-stamp the town’s application for a new downtown designation.
Beeman and Towne began meeting with Wallis and her staff several months ago, hoping to reopen lines of communication.
Beeman said there’s been plenty of “bad blood” in the relationship, but he hopes everyone can get past that and “move forward in a professional way.”
Others at the meeting Sept. 3 were less enthusiastic about rejoining the commission, especially since Morristown is large enough to handle the work that the regional commission often does for smaller towns.
“We don’t need them, but I’m willing to work with them,” board member Brian Kellogg said. But, if things turn sour again, he sees that as the last straw.
Former state legislator Gary Nolan, the current chair of the Morristown Development Review Board, suggested drafting an outline of how the town and commission would work together, and how they wouldn’t, before the select board votes on rejoining.
Nolan agrees it would be better if everyone could work together, but he thinks the regional commission has thrown up roadblocks for developments already approved at the local level, such as plans for a truck stop that ultimately fell through.
Last year, Griswold said, the commission submitted written commentary about proposed Morristown zoning changes at one of the final hearings before they were approved, rather than doing so earlier in the process.
“I don’t think that bodes well” for future cooperation, Griswold said.
Towne pointed out several times that Morristown may have left the commission, but the commission was established under state law, and the town and the village remain subject to certain aspects of the planning commission’s oversight, such as commenting on Act 250 permits.
With no Morristown representatives on the commission since 2016, the town and village don’t have much input on its comments on Act 250 permits — a role state law requires it to fill.
“Why wouldn’t we want to be at the table, part of the discussion?” Towne said.
Ron Stancliffe of the Morristown Conservation Commission supported rejoining the planning commission.
“Morristown is like an island,” he said, as the rest of Lamoille County works on development plans through and with the regional commission.
“How are we coordinating with the rest of the county?” he asked, noting the commission can help facilitate that.
Earlier in the meeting, Beeman agreed Morristown is large enough that it often doesn’t need the commission’s services.
“Morristown is mostly self-sufficient,” he said. “We can do a lot ourselves.” And development has continued in Morristown and its main village, despite the loss of the downtown designation.
“But the tax credits alone very much make it worth it,” Beeman said about regaining downtown designation.
Dodge hopes new Morristown and Morrisville members of the regional commission board of directors can “clear the air” and keep the relationship moving forward.
Kellogg explained how he wants the relationship to look: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” He doesn’t want the commission staff stepping on the toes of Morristown’s own staff.
The board voted unanimously to table Towne’s motion to rejoin, but asked Towne and Beeman to continue developing the relationship, and possibly drawing up a plan on what rejoining would look like.