Being a citizen planner isn’t easy. You have to wade through dense regulations – or write them – and make decisions you hope will make your community a better place.
But what if the authors and enforcers of those rules don’t interpret them the same way?
To help answer that question, the town of Milton started a series of forums for members of the town’s planning-oriented boards, planning director Jake Hemmerick said.
By putting planners – from Milton’s planning commission, development review board, economic development commission and recreation commission – in the same room, they’ll better understand the entire process, from penning regulations to applying them.
That’s why the first of seven forums, held last Wednesday in the town offices, focused on land use best practices. Facilitated by two attorneys versed in property law, this first meeting was a basic starting point before delving into the series’ more specific topics: transportation, natural resources, governance, energy and economy.
The forum posed 11 questions for attorneys Amanda Lafferty and David Rugh of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher. One considered variances, or waivers from zoning bylaws, granted by the DRB that Planning Commission chairwoman Lori Donna said were all-too-common not that long ago.
One variance resulted in a commercial development that “people still complain about to this day,” she said.
The issue is especially important to the planning commission as it furthers its pursuit of rewriting bylaws in the town core. Last year, the selectboard implemented interim zoning, temporarily pausing development of multifamily housing downtown and of storage units townwide as the commission studies better zoning for the area.
Using variances begs the question: Why put in all this work if it’s not enforced?
DRB member Bob Brisson said last week’s forum showed him that just as developers can flex muscle during proceedings, DRB members can push back, too, by continuing hearings or, as the attorneys suggested, making them prove there’s no other way to develop under the regulations.
“If the application is presented in November, and there’s snow on the ground, but you want to see some things that won’t show up until May, continue the hearing,” Rugh said.
Planners said they try to point out issues on applications at the sketch plan phase, the first step before submitting a formal application.
But it soon became clear Milton’s sketch plan approval process might be too formal, Hemmerick said: For some time, the town has held formal hearings, provided notice to abutters and issued a formal written decision for just sketch plans, similar to the process for actual approval.
Hemmerick said the town will now let DRB minutes serve as the record instead of a written decision, a change suggested by the attorneys that can be enacted immediately. He expects this could save anywhere between 21 to 45 days in review time, letting developers get on with their projects sooner.
Hemmerick thinks this change is just one way to demystify the town’s planning process, which has been criticized as cumbersome. Others are the bylaw rewrite and upcoming review of the town’s comprehensive plan, he said.
In doing so Hemmerick realizes his department needs to combat the long-running perception that Milton has studied its regulations and processes to death without ever making lasting change.
“It’s not necessarily untrue,” he admitted. “I can certainly empathize when people engage in the process and goals are put on paper, and that’s where they stay. Good planning is aimed at having these types of conversations that build consensus around a vision that is implementable.”
This review of bylaws, plans and processes is to create that vision, since Hemmerick said Milton’s reputation today is the town allows “everything everywhere.”
“It doesn’t seem like it has a coherence that you feel when you’re driving through other communities,” he said. “[Planning commissioners are] really looking at those districts and saying, ‘What are we trying to create?’”
This question is also being answered by the town’s Milton 4D project, or Defining Development from the Diner to the Dam, which will form a $2.4 million spending plan to create cohesiveness in the town core.
The underlying theme is consistency – between boards and commissions, planners and developers and the town and the public. The town hopes clearer regulations and processes will lead to development that boosts town’s grand list.
“You don’t want one person coming in under the same language and ending up with two different outcomes,” Hemmerick said. “It’s not fair to anyone involved, and it undermines the integrity of the planning program.”
Recreation commissioner John Lindsay, also in attendance last week, said the forum was helpful in continuing to chart Milton’s future. He likened the process to updating a 1960s-era car to 2020 standards, a tedious undertaking that’s slowly coming to fruition.
Julie Rutz, one of two residents who serves on both the DRB and planning commission, agreed, saying, “We’re closer than ever to getting all the pieces together.”
To Hemmerick, that says a lot about cohesion already.
“Their commitment to Milton runs deep. They don’t all come from the same point of view, and that’s healthy,” he said. “They’re all there in the public interest.”