Membership has its privileges, but what happens when you don’t get along with the group that allows those privileges? You lose them.
That’s the scenario in Morristown, which in 2017 was stripped of its membership in the state’s Designated Downtown program — largely because it decided to quit the Lamoille County Planning Commission.
According to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which oversees the Downtown Program, in the last five years: 23 designated downtowns were awarded $8 million in tax credits for 83 projects; $1.7 million worth of transportation grants were awarded; $35.2 million was leveraged with those funds; and $127 million in private funds were leveraged with tax credits.
Morristown is not included in that list.
Now, town officials are considering making peace with their neighbors across the street at the regional planning office, in hopes of regaining designated downtown status.
Jim Lovinsky, executive director of the Lamoille Housing Partnership — which spearheaded a multimillion-dollar overhaul of a major downtown building thanks to Morrisville’s downtown designation — hopes that can happen. In a letter to the town, Lovinsky said more than half a million dollars is at stake for future projects.
“Your ability to put aside personal differences and work together to solve local and regional planning and development issues is critical to the success and well-being of the communities you serve,” he wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to the town.
Not that easy
Even if the town rejoins the Lamoille County Planning Commission — a requirement for downtown designation — getting back in the downtown program isn’t a fait accompli, said Chris Cochran, the state’s director of Community Planning and Revitalization.
“When they’ve lost their designation, they have to go through the whole process again,” Cochran said last week. “Now, they’re back at square one.”
The town would have to “re-justify its boundaries” and rebuild the committees required for designation — “a lot of work,” he said.
Cochran said Morristown officials “alienated everybody” when they started picking fights with regional and state officials, and the downtown program would likely “need to kick the tires” before advancing an application for downtown designation to the board that approves such things.
“They could get jammed up with us before it goes to the board,” he said.
But the downtown board, responsible for approving those applications, is likely to be forgiving of Morristown, and not hold a grudge.
“It would be a clean slate,” Cochran said. “It bothered a lot of board members that Morrisville opted out. They are there to help communities and it was distressing to some board members” that Morristown lost its designation.”
Morristown is unique among the two dozen cities and towns with downtown designation: It’s the only municipality in the history of the downtown program to lose its designation because of a political feud, Cochran said.
He said Bradford lost its designation, but that was because the town simply didn’t have the resources to keep up with state requirements. And even then, Bradford was able to get into a similar classification, as a designated village center.
“It an unfortunate situation for the residents of Morrisville, and you have one or two bad apples who are spoiling it,” Cochran said. “Morrisville is the heart of the regional planning for the area.”
What was lost
The most pointed-to benefit that Morristown received as a designated downtown was money to help redevelop the former Arthur’s department store on Main Street. The sprawling store took up most of a block, and gave downtown a look of hungry vacancy before Lamoille Housing Partnership and Housing Vermont bought it and poured millions into it.
Lovinsky doesn’t think the project would have been possible without the tax credits and other benefits gained from Morristown’s downtown designation.
A 2016 email from Gary Holloway, the state’s downtown program coordinator, spelled out that and other perks Morristown received.
“As a result of its downtown designation, Morristown has received over $540,000 in state tax credits to improve 11 buildings, over $260,000 in grants to rebuild and light the sidewalks and install electric vehicle charging stations,” the email reads.
“The designation earned the town priority consideration for municipal planning grants which secured $42,000 in funding to update the town plan, create design review guidelines, and develop historic district zoning.
“The designation also supported Housing Vermont’s $4.5 million rehabilitation of Arthur’s with $1.3 million in priority funding from the department.”
Joe Segale, director of policy, planning and research with the Vermont Transportation Agency, said membership in the regional planning commission is necessary for receiving many funds from the transportation agency, and being part of the downtown program brought Morristown a quarter-million dollars in transportation money.
According to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Morristown got $259,212 in those funds between 2006 and 2016, which helped pay for $571,173 in transportation projects — such as sidewalks, streetlights and signs on various village streets.
In addition to the benefits lost with the loss of downtown designation, Morristown has missed out on services that the regional planning commission provides for its member municipalities.
That’s despite town officials’ public assertions that the town doesn’t need the commission.
“My inclination is not to go across the street to get assistance,” Town Administrator Dan Lindley said during an April 2016 joint meeting with the select board and village trustees in which long-simmering tensions between the planning commission and the town bubbled over. “I don’t think there’s anything over there they offer above and beyond what I have on my staff.”
When asked last week for examples of what the planning commission has done for the town, Seth Jensen, the commission’s principal planner, sent nearly 40 examples from 2014 to early 2016.
Those include grant and other funding assistance, mapping support, help with documentation, coordinating workshops for municipal employees from around the county, road erosion studies, representing the town on rural transportation boards, dozens of pedestrian and vehicle traffic counts, coordinating Lamoille Valley Rail Trail trailhead planning around the region, participating in discussions about the Route 100 bypass impact on the region, coordinating a “walk audit” through the village, studying a possible recreation path linking Morristown and Stowe, monitoring intersections for traffic flow and safety, and even creating a “how to use a roundabout” information pamphlet.
And even throughout the summer of 2016, as the feud ramped up, the town zoning administrator and planner, Todd Thomas, asked the regional planning commission for numerous traffic counts. Between April and August, when the town quit the commission, the commission conducted 12 traffic counts for the town.
That summer, the commission also provided Morristown with the following services, according to Jensen:
• Helped with a study of the intersection of Routes 12 and 15A.
• Continued with expansion of the Green Mountain Byway through Morristown and Hyde Park.
• Helped secure grant funding for maps on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
• Organized a meeting of Lamoille County road foremen, at the request of Morristown.
• Prepared five different GIS maps and helped Tricia Follert, Morristown community development coordinator, with a map for a brochure.
• Helped with two brownfields projects in town.
• And provided general help with Act 250 issues for a couple of current and potential property owners.
It’s not clear exactly when the feud between the town/village and the regional planning commission started. Some point to the commission bringing Act 250 scrutiny to a proposed diesel pump at Maplefields, others to similar scrutiny given to the town’s sewer plant, still others to comments about proposed runway improvements at the state airport in town.
Either way, it all points to interference, local officials have said.
At the same time, the commission’s staff and directors have pointed out that state law requires regional planning commissions to weigh in on regional impacts.
Indeed, Morristown can make a case for being the most central of all Lamoille County communities, sharing borders with six other towns. Three state highways connect the town to Hyde Park, Wolcott, Elmore and Stowe.
Segale, of the state transportation agency, said state roads run through towns regardless of any notions of territoriality, and no town is an island.
“Very few Vermonters live and work and play just in one town,” Segale said. “We live in regions.”
In an Sept. 3 select board discussion about whether to rejoin the county planning commission, select board vice chairman Chris Towne called Morristown “an integral part of this county,” the largest town and its social services hub. He was the board member most adamant about rejoining the regional planning commission, and at least having a seat (or two or three) at the table when it comes to regional planning that affects the town.
“For me, it’s important to be part of that conversation and play in the sandbox nicely,” he said.