Town Manager’s Column: All About Town (September 2015)

IMG_3585ALL ABOUT TOWN

Stuart A. Hurd, Town Manager

At its September 14 meeting, the Select Board moved to adopt the revised Town Plan provided that the Johnson Controls site is reclassified from Industrial to Planned Commercial. The vote passed thus requiring two more public hearings because the change in the land use plan is considered significant. Those hearings are scheduled for October 5 and 6, 2015. I expect that the hearings will be short and sweet and the Plan adopted before the October 9th deadline. The long running disagreement over the classification of the former Johnson Controls property is over for the time being, unless the Plan is challenged by petition. Despite claims to the contrary, there is much work ahead before any development can occur there. Time will tell.

The Select Board’s counsel has filed the necessary legal brief outlining why the Chelsea and Apple Hill solar projects will cause an undue adverse impact on the surroundings. New laws enacted by the Legislature in 2015 require additional setbacks and screening for these projects, but the approvals continue to rest with the Public Service Board (PSB), not municipalities. I have not had the first hand dealings with the developers of these projects that many residents of Apple Hill claim were arrogant and heavy-handed. The Select Board did not involve the developers in its deliberations of the plans. In my opinion, and with all due respect, my review of the submissions indicates that these are well-positioned projects, most likely meeting the new legislation for screening and setbacks, and not located on prime agricultural land as many other projects have been. The size of the combined projects gives cause for concern, but that issue has been decided by the Vermont Supreme Court. I suspect the Town’s efforts may achieve additional screening and other improvements, but I doubt the projects will be denied. In the meantime, additional solar projects are planned for the west end and south of town on lands of the Sheriff’s Department. There may be others coming as well. The Select Board has asked the staff to develop an ordinance which will attempt to insure that future projects are well-screened. This ordinance “shall not be more restrictive than screening requirements applied to commercial development in the municipality”. ((T.24VSA section 4414(15) A.)

I hope you all have been reading and listening to the various local school board discussions about the impacts of Act 46, the consolidation of local schools act (my title). There is an opportunity to reduce the local education tax rate by as much as $0.10, or $100 in taxes on a $100,000 home. In year two, that potential rate decrease drops to $0.08. It continues to decline over a five year period. There are issues about capped per pupil spending that cause concern. So far, the discussions have led to establishing a committee of individual board members to collectively seek ways to comply with, or show compliance with, the new law. In two recent instances, individual board members seemed to indicate that true consolidation will not happen. The best we can hope for is to prove that we are sufficiently consolidated to comply with the law. I find it hard to understand why local board members see consolidation in such a bad light. There are ways to protect local schools from closing. In fact, consolidation would enhance the District’s ability to fully utilize the current facilities, potentially improve school choice within the District, improve individual school populations reducing, or stabilizing, per student costs across the board, enhance the use of current staff positions throughout the District, and provide one representative school board to oversee the operations of all schools in concert with the superintendent’s office.

Remember, if anyone has any questions or suggestions arising from this column or on any town matters, please contact me at 442-1037 or stop in at the Town Offices on South Street.

Stuart Hurd is Bennington’s Town Manager. He writes a monthly column on town issues.