Municipal leaders in Warren and Fayston feel their towns should share in the costs of developing a municipal wastewater system in Waitsfield, arguing that Waitsfield is The Valley’s downtown and doing so would allow more infill and residential development where it should be constructed.
That was one takeaway from the January 12, 2023, Mad River Valley Planning District Partners’ meeting. Thirty-six local leaders (select board members, planning commissioners and others) joined members of the public in person along with 13 or so watching live on Mad River Valley Television for the meeting. The point of the meeting was to access the planning district’s four decades of work and assess what comes next in terms of the district’s role and focus.
Joshua Schwartz, executive director of the planning district, praised the work of moderator Paul Costello for facilitating and keeping the dialogue going as participants were asked a series of questions about future challenges and priorities.
“Paul Costello did a great job at facilitating and keeping the dialogue going, eliciting responses, etc. I heard participants express interest in having MRVPD focus on both a few topics/projects deeply as well as a variety of different topics broadly. Overall, my biggest takeaway was participant interest in having MRVPD continue being involved and playing a leadership role in addressing valley-wide challenges. I heard more than once that MRVPD is well-positioned to develop a unified vision. In order to do so, there’s work to be done in regard to visioning, roles and responsibilities, and balancing priorities with limited resources,” Schwartz said after the meeting.
He said that the proposal and discussion of a multi-town financial commitment to a single-town wastewater treatment system surprised him the most.
Bob Ackland, chair of the Mad River Valley Planning District steering committee and Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland said the support expressed for the planning district was his biggest take away.
“The biggest takeaway for me was the support for the planning district and the relative lack of criticism of how the district does its work,” he said after the meeting.
“What surprised me the most was the implied statements for us to do more and to make things happen, not just research but defining clear action plans,” he added.
During last week’s discussion, which took place in the Village Meeting House in Waitsfield, keynote speaker Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said his organization’s survey of its member towns showed that housing affordability was the first and third biggest issue, with inflation the second biggest issue. Member towns also report that the solutions they are seeking are not necessarily local. They are seeing regionalization as a solution.
“The geopolitical structures we set up 2000-plus years ago might not be the right approach to problem-solving today. Coming together the way your communities did 40 years ago makes sense,” he said.
Schwartz provided the historical background on the creation of the planning district in 1983, 1985, 1998 and a new vision statement in 2015.
Paul Costello former executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development took over as facilitator of the meeting. He challenged the group to consider what challenges there are to this three-town system, whether there are gaps and whether there are unmet needs.
Housing and the infrastructure to support housing were mentioned multiple times by multiple participants. Questions were raised about the impact of short term rentals on housing. Another issue that was raised is the question of whether select boards and plan and commissions work together, and meet together outside of the steering committee meetings. One challenge identified was the fact that there are no community nonprofits or social service organizations at the table when the steering committee of the planning district meets.
The issue of climate change and population in migration due to climate change was discussed as well as the need to make sure migration is socially and economically diverse. There was a discussion among local leaders about whether there should be a menu or list of potential tasks for towns to ask the planning district to pursue. There was also a discussion over whether the planning district should have less on its plate to focus specifically on housing.
Warren Planning Commission member Jim Sanford said that having the planning district aid in Waitsfield’s pursuit of a wastewater treatment system is a way that all three towns can participate in what is The Valley’s commercial center.
“We all pay for the planning district from my point of view. Irasville is our town and anything we can do to support that in Fayston and Warren we can do as part of the planning district. The Valley is just this one place, Warren has a tiny community center and Fayston doesn’t have one. Our town is Irasville and that’s where The district can flex,” he said.
Fayston planning commissioner Donald Simonini amplified that stating, “We all benefit from a water and wastewater system in Waitsfield. At some point when that $20-$30 million wastewater system needs to be addressed, I strongly urge the planning district to find ways to bring Fayston and Warren along in the bonding for this. We all benefit from what happens in Waitsfield in the long term I think Warren and Fayston should be part of that.”
Additionally there were considerations of whether the planning districts’ “origin story“ should be reconsidered given that the planning district was created to manage development at the ski resorts. Brady returned for some closing comments and said that one of the challenges he heard for select select boards to go back to the planning district and authorize it to do what they want it to do.
“The real challenge to all of you if you want this form of regional governance to succeed is the need to authorize it to succeed,“ Brady said. “The other thing I heard again and again is that there are problems single towns can’t solve; there are problems that are unique enough to you that it might not be appropriate for you to use the regional planning commission to solve them and it might not be as effective.”
The steering committee of the planning district will discuss last week’s meeting at its monthly meeting in two weeks. The meeting can be viewed at mrvtv.com in its entirety.