Breaking Up (With Your Regional Planning Commission) Is Hard To Do

Sep 3, 2016

Only the breadth of Portland Street separates the offices of the Lamoille County Planning Commission and the town offices of Morristown. But when it comes to their working relationship, they’re miles apart.

And so it wasn’t a total surprise this week when the Morristown Select Board and the Morrisville Village Trustees unanimously voted to walk away from the Lamoille County Planning Commission.

But can a town just divorce its regional planning commission? Lamoille County Planning Commission Executive Director Tasha Wallis says it's not that easy.

“They voted to end their relationship with the planning commission and associate with the Northeastern Vermont Development Association," she says of Monday's joint decision. "However, there’s a lot of details that aren’t covered in that particular vote.”

The Lamoille County Planning Commission, or  LCPC, covers the 10 towns and five villages in Lamoille County, including Morristown and its village, Morrisville. Dan Lindley is the town administrator in Morristown. He says Monday’s vote of the select board and village trustees has been a long time coming.

“There’s been a lot of thought and a lot of discussion that has gone into this," says Lindley. "I think both boards are looking to work with an organization that they feel that there can be a productive relationship with.”

Morristown officials who work with LCPC say the regional commission doesn’t have the same priorities as the town. Morristown is the commercial hub of what is largely a rural county with two large ski resorts – Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch.

Lindley admits it’s a big move, and not one that happens often in Vermont.

“I don’t think really, at least to my knowledge, that there’s been a lot of change in the compositions of any of the regional planning commissions across the state. So I doubt that there’s ever been that much discussion before about changing," he says, adding, "We’re just looking for that kind of relationship that will fit the community better for what we do here.”

Where they’re looking is to the Northeast Kingdom, and the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

"I don't see how they can make the contiguity argument without getting another neighboring town to participate." - Vermont Community Planning and Revitalization Director Chris Cochran

It’s been decades since a municipality sought to switch regional planning commissions. But it has happened before, and there is a state policy in place.

Chris Cochran is the director of community planning and revitalization for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Cochran says that while there is a process spelled out for switching regional planning commissions, a town must be contiguous to its desired new region. Morristown is in the center of Lamoille County.

“In the case of Morrisville, I think that’s the biggest stumbling block to their proposal because ... they’re kind of the center of the donut hole, if you will," he says. "And I don’t see how they can make the contiguity argument without getting another neighboring town to participate. I don’t know if those conversations have occurred, but that would be a critical step for the communities to take if they wanted to proceed and meet statutory requirements.”

Morristown lies at the center of Lamoille County, making it hard to plan regionally for the county without the town's participation.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Wolcott is the only town that lies solidly between Morristown and the Northeast Kingdom. And Wolcott officials say they have yet to be approached by Morristown or Morrisville.

David Snedeker, the executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, says he hasn’t received a formal request from Morristown or Morrisville to join his organization. And he’s doubtful the state would approve such a request.

“Given the language in the Vermont statute and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s policy on changing RPC boundaries, it seems unlikely that the municipalities would be able to change RPCs," he says. "I do think this is an unfortunate situation and I would hope that the town and village are able to work with the Lamoille County Planning Commission to resolve any issues that they may have.”

Small town politics: The view out this Lamoille County Planning Commission office window looks directly into the office of Morristown Planner Todd Thomas who, until this week, represented Morrisville on the LCPC board. The building to the left is LCPC Board Chair Caleb Magoon's business.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

LCPC’s Tasha Wallis echoed that sentiment, saying, “Planning by its very nature is collaborative ... the state, regional planning commissions and municipalities work together. So we are disappointed in this action and we’re very hopeful we will find a way to move forward with the community. We’re committed to a seamless planning throughout this region.”

Wallis says Morristown and Morrisville's departure won't sink LCPC financially. She said the town pays about $3,500 in annual dues and the village doesn't pay any dues. However, she said, it would be hard to plan for the county with a piece missing from the middle of the puzzle.

She says, “They’re really in the heart of the region, and so many things that we do.”

If Morristown’s effort to switch regions fails, the town could remain unaffiliated. However, that might mean losing access to some government funding, such as community development block grants and money for Morrisville’s designated downtown.