Grafton Select Board rejects initial Planning Commission changes, asks for full Town Plan revision

By Cynthia Prairie
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Eric Stevens, the head of Grafton’s Planning Commission, says he was at first angered, then baffled by the Select Board’s recent rejection of the changes his group had made to the Town Plan, which is actually the 2008 Town Plan that was re-adopted in 2013. Vermont requires towns to revise and readopt their plans every five years.

Stevens said that starting in April of 2015, his seven-member body had been working to bring forth several, but not all, of the updates to the plan in order to jumpstart the process of getting Grafton a Village Center Designation from the state. That designation gives tax advantages for work on certain historic structures.

The Select Board, he added, was fully aware that the commission would only be presenting a portion of the changes, and would continue working on other sections including land use, economy and energy among others.

The Grafton Select Board was fully aware that the Planning Commission would be presenting only a portion of the changes to the Town Plan, especially the Village Designation in an attempt to get that process jumpstarted.

Eric Stevens
Planning Commission chair

But at a special Select Board hearing in late December, in which the public was to give input on the changes thus far, three of the four members in attendance (member Ron Pilette was absent) instead rejected the plan and told the commission to bring them a completed plan.

And, according to minutes of the meeting, only Select Board member Gus Plummer agreed with the Planning Commission, saying that the updates presented were indeed what the Select Board asked the commission to do. Both Stevens and Grafton resident Al Sands defended the commission actions saying that the Select Board in June requested that the commission add language for the Village Center Designation. Beginning in July 2015, commission member Liisa Kissel brought up the issue of the designation.

Stevens said he felt blindsided by the Select Board. “Previous to (that night), they never had any objection to how we were handling this,” Stevens said in an interview. “Maybe they completely forgot that they had asked for this.”

He added that the changes have been available to the board “since September … they did not object to the process at any point.”

Planning Commission member dissents

But it was a Planning Commission member – Rex James – who fired the opening salvo against the adopting the changes, when, during the public comment portion of that December meeting, he said that he disagreed with the Town Plan as presented to the board “because it was done in an expedited way … and should have included more comprehensive updates. There is virtually no change in the presented plan.” He added that he “is embarrassed to be a part of the Planning Commission.”

The Planning Commission had hoped to expedite the Village Center section of the Town Plan since the state requires that before a town can apply for the designation, it must be clearly laid out in the plan.

In a December interview, Stevens said everyone on the commission – except for one member – agreed that that was the best approach. He added that in October, Rex James had said that he thought they should bring the entire plan to the board.

And in an interview on Tuesday, Select Board chair Sam Battaglino said of the commission and the board’s rejection of its work, “There was no progress. They weren’t pro-active, they were retroactive. There was absenteeism, general disarray on the commission.” Contending that the Planning Commission “did not take the job seriously,” Battaglino said that one time the committee “didn’t have a quorum, another time an agenda wasn’t filed, so that’s two meetings out of 12 (in a year) that couldn’t be held. ”

I want a complete Town Plan that  goes into the 21st century.  … the commission didn’t fulfill what it had promised the people of Grafton.  I’ll do everything I can to keep Grafton moving into the 21st century, to move forward and better itself.

Sam Battaglino
Chair, Grafton Select Board

In an online check of minutes from the five Planning Commission posted (July 2015 to November 2015 ), two meetings had two absences, two had one absence and one had none. Since there are seven members of the commission, each had a quorum at the meetings, which lasted from 45 minutes to 2 hours.  Minutes were not available on line for earlier meetings.

Battaglino said that while the commission did present the Village Center changes, “they didn’t move at all on the rest of the plan. This plan is 8-years-old now. And they want to readopt the plan that would make it 13-years-old.”

He added that he wants a “complete Town Plan that  goes into the 21st century.  … the commission didn’t fulfill what it had promised the people of Grafton.  I’ll do everything I can to keep Grafton moving into the 21st century, to move forward and better itself.”

According to the minutes of the December Select Board meeting, Stevens told the board that the commission made these specific updates “a priority” even though working on them distracted from completing the overall Town Plan. He added, according to the minutes, that although Select Board members had attended Planning Commission meetings, none spoke about additional updates.

Wind project: 800 pound gorilla?

Battaglino did bring up what he called “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” — the Iberdrola wind project that would place a 28-turbine array in Grafton and its western neighbor Windham. He agreed that there are “the differing views on the wind project between the board and the commission” that it appoints. What those views are to a person is unclear although members of each will say that a majority of the other is either pro- or anti-wind.

Even so, the Town Plan must address energy issues and one member, Rex James, drafted that portion in September. You can read it here. It however was not included in the draft plan presented to the board, Stevens said in an interview with The Telegraph, because there is no consensus that it represents the intent of the commission. It is a work in progress.”

And in November the commission held a public hearing, with three Select Board members present, that addressed updates to the local government services, Village Center designation, housing statistics and the flood resiliency.

Of Stevens, Battaglino said, “I think he has an agenda. He’s pro-wind. …  I would say I’m not anti-wind. I don’t think it is appropriate for Grafton and Windham (to have) industrial wind. It’s the siting that is the problem in Vermont.”

Stevens said, “I strongly suspect it (the Town Plan controversy) had something to do with the wind controversy. I’m not necessarily in favor of this project. I am in favor of a fair evaluation of it within the process.”

As for next steps, Stevens said the commission would continue working on the Town Plan “and hope that this waste of their time doesn’t discourage any of our Planning Commission members from serving.”

“We’re trying to serve the town,” he said. “We’re appointed by the Select Board but (it’s our job) to look out for the town the best that we see fit.”

And Battaglino said, “I want it to be done by April. It then has to be approved by Windham Regional Commission,”  should the town decide to seek Vermont Municipal Planning grants.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Jackie says:

    And the ‘hits’ just keep on coming!

    “Of Stevens, Battaglino said, “I think he has an agenda. He’s pro-wind. … I would say I’m not anti-wind. I don’t think it is appropriate for Grafton and Windham (to have) industrial wind. It’s the siting that is the problem in Vermont.”

    Seriously? Sam Battaglino accuses another of ‘having an agenda’? Does he think people are blind or stupid or both?

    Jackie