Information about planning in Brattleboro and Vermont is necessary for good community discussions of planning. The information below comes from the Town’s web site, Smarth Growth Vermont, and from The Vermont Planning Information Center (VIPC). VPIC provides a great, free document from the VT Land Use Education and Training Collaborative called “Essentials of Local Land Use Planning and Regulation, 2nd Edition, May 2007”.
For this article we’ll look at the various groups and individuals involved in planning and zoning and what their roles are in the process.
“Essentials of Local Land Use Planning and Regulation” makes a few major points about planning they hope everyone will understand:
All local officials have distinct roles to play in the process, and it is critical that the players respect the differences in their roles and responsibilities. A thorough municipal planning process is critical to a community’s long-term vitality. Once the municipal plan is approved, it can be implemented through both regulatory and non-regulatory measures. State law provides prescriptive procedures for adoption, amendment, appeals and enforcement of plans and bylaws, all of which must be followed very closely. One of the most critical functions is to conduct effective meetings and hearings which involve the public in appropriate ways and protect the due process rights of parties.
Brief History of Land Use Planning In Vermont
In the 1920’s, the Vermont Legislature decided to authorize municipalities to create planning commissions that could propose comprehensive plans “for the future development of the municipality which shall be based on public welfare.” In the 1930’s, the Vermont General Assembly added laws permitting municipalities to regulate land use in their communities through zoning. These two legislative moves got planning and zoning started in Vermont and served towns well until highways and cars made an impact in the 1960’s.
In 1968, the Legislature added some more laws, including a list of the purposes planning and zoning should achieve. The new law also outlined the contents of municipal (town) plans as well as a process for their adoption.
Vermont continues to tinker with land use planning and zoning. The 2006 Growth Centers legislation, Act 183, offered incentives for development in and around compact, mixed-use town and village centers. This corresponds with what Smart Growth Vermont calls, unsurprisingly, “smart growth.” They say the approach comes from a belief that “for Vermont to grow and thrive we need to carefully integrate growth, environmental protection and economic opportunities into our local planning framework.”
Vermont law provides extensive ways for towns to act related to local land use planning and regulation. Vermont communities are not even required to plan, but those who chose to do so must follow some rules.
The Planning Commission
The primary function of any planning commission in Vermont is to prepare and amend the town plan and bylaws, and advise on amendments.
In Brattleboro, our seven-member Commission “is charged with setting the overall policy and goals for development in town. It prepares the Town Plan and any amendments, as well as other planning reports and studies, and prepares amendments to the zoning and subdivision ordinances.”
Planning commissions also engage in many other activities as leaders of the community on planning matters. They can hold public hearings to determine future needs of the town, conduct surveys, hold discussion forums and educate the public about current issues facing the town., says VPIC.
Overall, says VPIC, the Planning Commission is “charged with bringing a long-term perspective to day-to-day decision-making. As such, it must take care to represent all members and interests of the community. To this end, the board should seek maximum feasible participation by other public officials, interest groups, civic groups, and citizens. Above all else, planning commission members must always act in the public interest and put the general welfare of the community above any personal interests.”
Under the Planning Commission/DRB model, as we have in Brattleboro, the planning commission is a legislative body, with authority to draft the municipal plan and create both regulatory and non-regulatory tools that implement the plan.
The Development Review Board (DRB)
The development review board is the quasi-judicial entity responsible for hearing all applications for development review, including applications for site plan, subdivision, variance, conditional use, administrative officer appeals, and any other reviews authorized by the bylaws. If you want to build something your application will likely come before the DRB.
In Brattleboro, the board “reviews site plans, conditional uses, planned developments, subdivision applications and other aspects of land development as set forth in the town zoning and subdivision ordinances. It also considers appeals of decisions of the zoning administrator, such as when land development is ruled out of order by the zoning administrator as not conforming with the town zoning ordinance, or if the zoning administrator has issued a notice of violation. The board is also empowered to grant variances from zoning and subdivision requirements in certain circumstances.”
One strength of the PC/DRB model, says VPIC, is that it vests all legislative functions with a planning commission, and all development review functions with a development review board.
The zoning administrator, says VIPIC, is “the face of local land use regulation, and is the primary point of contact for those affected by local regulations.”
This person, ideally, goes by the book and should take local regulations literally, applying them equally throughout the community.
A professional planner sometimes makes a significant contribution to a land use planning and regulation program. Planners, says VPIC, “are trained in facilitating good public processes when updating the municipal plan or land use regulations. In addition, a planner can provide in-depth analysis of development applications, which ensures a consistent and efficient review process. Planners bring the professional knowledge that is so vital in a unique and rapidly changing field. Oftentimes, a planner’s professional expertise can help find solutions that a volunteer board may wrestle with for quite some time. ”
Furthermore, VPIC says that “Many planners work closely with applicants to help them craft the best possible application prior to formal submission to the administrative officer or AMP. This informal process of working with the applicant can help create a thoughtfully designed project, and will facilitate an efficient and more positive review process. ”
In Brattleboro, “The Planning Services Department provides a wide range of services to the general public including project consultation and development review; permit information and processing, guidance on potential funding from state and federal grants and loans; sewage and building code information; and permit, population and traffic statistics and trends.”
One of the Selectboard’s most important functions, says VPIC, is to “appoint and remove members of the planning commission and appropriate municipal panel, the administrative officer, and key advisory commissions, such as the conservation commission. In this capacity, the legislative body represents the voters, serves as the accountability mechanism, and being fulfilled.”
The Town manager’s role in plannin is to “advise the Selectboard on appointments, supervises and manages all land use staff, interacts with the municipal attorney, and develops and administers the budget” according to the VPIC. They state that many Town managers will “assist with coordinating communications between the various boards, and serve as the municipality’s media contact – a role that allows the manager to frame the discussion about land use planning and regulation in a community, under the direction of the legislative body.”
When it comes to Planning and Zoning, VPIC says the Town clerk’s duties include “conducting votes on plans and bylaws when required, certifying plans and bylaws, and serving as the custodian of public records such as subdivision plats and hearing minutes.”
Regional Planning Commission
In order to qualify for some state grant funding, municipal plans must be approved by the regional planning commission. VPIC says “Regional commission staff frequently provide extensive technical assistance to local planning commissions in drafting municipal plans and bylaws as well as other local regulatory and non-regulatory documents.”
The Windham Regional Commission serves Brattleboro. They say “Towns wishing to have a strong hand in Act 250 applications need to have a Town Plan, duly adopted by its selectboard, that protects its interests and those of its townspeople” and to help make things as clear as possible, “every five years, Town Plans are written by the town’s Planning Commission, adopted by the town’s Selectboard, and approved by the Regional Commission, if so requested by the Town.”
Planning consultants can be hired to deal with unique planning issues in town, such as creating a master plan for a piece of property or coming up with traffic planning solutions for a bad intersection. Typically, consulting planners work closely with the local planning commission, but not always.
Consultants were hired to help with Riverfront development visioning and to help with the West Brattleboro Master Plan, for example.
Advisory Commissions and Committees
Advisory commissions (sometimes called committees) can be created to have broad authority and “may engage in any activity that assists the legislative body or planning commission with preparing, adopting, and implementing the municipal plan,” says VPIC.
Don’t forget lawyers. The Town attorney can guide the town through laws and cases that impact town decision-making in both the planning and regulatory phases of the land use program.
Citizens and Other Groups
VPIC says “The planning commission is not the only entity that plans. Others can and should be involved in the process, which means the planning commission must actively solicit input and assistance from others, including members of the public, the local legislative body, other municipal officials such as the AMP and administrative officer, the local chamber of commerce, citizen groups, etc. Vermont’s planning processes place a significant emphasis on the involvement of citizens in local, regional, and state planning. ”
Vermont Planning Information Center has information for planning commissions, zoning boards, development review boards, and their staff and all others involved in land use planning and regulation in Vermont.
Town of Brattleboro has information about departments, zoning rules and regs, and more.
Smart Growth Vermont provides a Community Planning Toolbox and other resources for thinking about planning in Vermont.
The 2003 Brattleboro Town Plan is in the Brain Trust for easy reference.