In the autumn of 2017 we said farewell to Alan La Combe, who faithfully served on the PC-ZBA for many years and was instrumental in the creation of a freestanding Planning Commission. Alan’s efforts will be felt for years to come. The eight citizen planners currently on the Planning Commission are: Renee Vondle, Chairperson; Deborah Wright, Vice Chair; Bonnie Anderson, Myles Mickle, Bonnie North, Nathan Rounds, Laurie A. Rowell, and our Student Commissioner, Lia Clark.
The Planning Commission is tasked with overhauling and updating the Rockingham Town Plan. Aside from the obvious necessity of bringing the Plan up to date and more appropriate for our changing community, we are developing precise verbiage articulating important goals that will be useful as reference points when applying for State and Federal funding in the future. Another important goal for the update process is to greatly increase citizen awareness of, and engagement with, the Town Plan by way of:
• A modern presentation that is attractive and approachable.
• Clear, concise verbiage that is not open to varied and conflicting interpretations.
• The creation of appropriate and achievable goals.
• Effective and compelling visuals that engage and truly enhance the information in the text.
Also in late 2017, we applied for a Municipal Planning Grant of $12,453.33 from the State of Vermont. It was awarded in early 2018 and matched by $2,226.67 from the Town of Rockingham. We have submitted our request to the State for a $11,259 grant to continue our work into 2019. If awarded it will be matched with $1,251. This funding has allowed us to create a web site specifically for the Planning Commission, launch a town-wide survey, and hire a consultant to assist with gathering data and mapping for the new plan.
After conducting interviews with prospective candidates, the Commission voted in March 2018 to hire Brandy Saxton, owner of Place Sense in Windsor, Vermont as a consultant. Brandy is a land use planner with more than 15 years of experience in community and regional planning, preparing land use regulations and design guidelines, GIS mapping and analysis, demographic research and statistical analysis. She brings the fresh presentation and modern approach that we expect for the new Rockingham Town Plan.
In March, we launched www.RockinghamPlanning.org. We are using that internet portal to inform citizens of the work in progress, foster more awareness and participation in the update, and extend an on-going invitation to attend our meetings and voice specific concerns.
In May, we developed our Work Plan, which is to draw up draft versions of each chapter and submit them for public review beginning in early 2019. All draft plan chapters have been prepared and we will seek public input in the spring/summer 2019.
In July, we welcomed BFUHS student Lia Clark to join the Commission as our Student Commissioner. We are grateful that now we also have the youths’ perspectives articulated in our process. We are also very grateful for the participation of Scott Sharland, of Greater Falls Connections and Kate Roome, RN, with the Vermont Department of Health. These are critical working partnerships, offering deeper insights into some of the challenges, needs and concerns in our community.
Working with our consultant Brandy Saxton we created two comprehensive surveys, one for adults and a separate youth survey, asking what they appreciated about Rockingham and what they wanted for Rockingham’s future. These surveys were available online and widely distributed in printed form—everywhere from the Bellows Falls Senior Center, to the Recreation Center—to the Rockingham Library and Bellows Falls Union High School. We promoted the effort with 2,000 postcards distributed throughout the town and on-screen advertisements at the Bellows Falls Opera House Movie Theater. Our response was approximately 10% of the Town population, which is considered typical of such endeavors. Survey results have been tabulated and are available at https://www.rockinghamplanning.org/town-survey-results.
In October, at the request of the Development Review Board, we formed a small working group dedicated to resolving a variety of issues concerning blighted and nuisance properties and the Town’s need for an ordinance to address them. That group met weekly for many weeks, seeking advice and input from the Town’s Listers, the Police and Fire Departments and lawyer Ray Massuco. A draft blight ordinance has been prepared and will be reviewed in 2019. Also in October, we met in Walpole, NH with the Planning Commission of Walpole to explore common concerns and discuss possibilities and potentials for greater cooperation in the future.
Throughout the year, we have continued to foster greater connection and engagement with the community by scheduling many of our monthly meetings out in the community instead of in the Town Hall. We have met at: The Christ’s Church in Saxtons River, The Saxtons River Inn, Sonnax offices, The Vermont Country Store, The Bellows Falls Waypoint Center, The Bellows Falls Police and Fire Department, Bellows Falls Union High School, the Bellows Falls Community Bike Project’s storefront, and even outdoors in the parking area of the now closed Sunoco station at the intersection of Westminster Street/Route 121 where the new Rockingham Branch of River Valley Credit Union is proposed to be built.
At the beginning of every meeting we reserve time for citizen comments and at each of these on-site meetings we’ve also offered our hosts the opportunity to give a short presentation about what they do here in our community and to express how they hope to see our town evolve and meet the challenges ahead. Since an increased and enlivened connection with the entire community is an important goal, this has been extremely rewarding all around.
A full-on effort will be made to engage the residents and other stake holders in our town, as we finalize the Plan, chapter-by-chapter.