Norwich Ponders Sustainable, Affordable Development Along Route 5

May 6, 2015

Like many small towns in Vermont, Norwich is trying to manage future development to meets the needs of all residents, not just the well-heeled. So town planners are inviting feedback about possible zoning changes in this Upper Valley community.

In the window of Dan and Whit’s eclectic general store in the heart of Norwich, a sign proclaims, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!” That slogan may apply more generally to this desirable address for more than 3,500 people just across the river from Dartmouth College. But there is one thing Norwich doesn’t have: affordable housing close to town.

Zoning and Planning Director Phil Dechert has been holding meetings to get feedback on a study that looks at how the Route 5  corridor might be rezoned for clustered housing and small businesses.

“And we think it’s a good location for higher-density, possibly affordable or senior housing," Dechert explained before a recent information session. "This study was to look at it, see what was available and to look at maybe what would be good approaches to allow that to happen over the next couple of years."

Dechert says he's not proposing development — he just wants Norwich to have a plan in place that will foster sustainable growth. Planning consultant Brandy Saxton showed PowerPoint slides of cottage-like residences and stores punctuated by bike paths, bus stops and green space.

The sign in the window of Dan and Whit's store in Norwich sums up the feeling many have about this town, but some see the need for more affordable housing, possibly along the Route 5 corridor north and south of the village.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“The idea that there is going to be a little higher density. There’s going to be a little bit more of a compact development pattern," Saxton told her audience at the public meeting. “There’s going to be some relationship between these things. If you can’t get from where you are living to the shop to get milk other than getting in your car and driving there, you are really not getting to the heart of where we are hoping to get to with mixed-use.”

Saxton was peppered with questions. Would taxes go up if added development needed more sewers and police protection? Could a developer be required or given incentives to make rents or prices affordable? Was there enough public transportation to support a new neighborhood?

Planners didn’t have all the answers, but hope to use this report to start a conversation about what kind of place Norwich wants to be in 20 years, when one third of all households are expected to include someone over 65.

Other towns in the Upper Valley are grappling with similar demographics, and there is a regional plan for east central Vermont that addresses many of the issues on the planning table in Norwich.