Friday November 30, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS - Members of the Rockingham Planning Commission and the public sat in the lower theater of Town Hall Wednesday to hear suggestions from Mullin Associates Inc. for the Green Island Project.

John Mullin, Zenia Kotval and Carlos Nieto-Mattei used concept drawings and a PowerPoint presentation to detail their ideas and thoughts on how to highlight the village’s cultural history and agricultural resources during a public hearing that preceded a planning commission meeting.

The Green Island Project is one of several for the Sustainable Valley Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to generating financially and environmentally sustainable economies. The project aims to improve and beautify the island by revitalizing its old buildings and attempting to bring in businesses to create jobs. According to SVG, the project is about training and jobs in the sustainable sectors of an evolving economy -- energy conservation, efficiency and curtailment, renewable energy and local food systems and permaculture.

Rockingham Planning Commission Chairman Alan Lacombe said Mullin Associates was one of the respondents to a municipal planning grant written by the commission.

Mullin, also a professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told the audience in order for the project to succeed the village will have to determine the potential design guidelines for new and historic buildings, as well as methods and options to improve pedestrian accessibility and safety, and assess parking needs and recommend options for improvement.

He said over the next five years, the Vilas Bridge will remain closed, the railroad property and Bellows Falls Waypoint Center will stay open, all infrastructure issues must be determined and funding options must be included.

The island will need to have fiber optic connectivity, said Mullin, who used humor and anecdotes to amuse the crowd. He also said there is a need for some re-parcelization, which is when lands such as wooded areas are cleared for residential, industrial or commercial use, as well as a revision of parking requirements and a recognition of the area’s rich history.

"I got to tell you, you guys are the most subtle in terms of celebrating your history," he said. "I was just talking to (Rockingham Health Officer/Zoning-Planning Administrator) Ellen Howard, I said, ‘Show me where it says something about your historic canal.’ It’s up by the Post Office. And then show me where it says anything about the petroglyphs (images etched on rock surfaces by Native Americans).

"You are sitting in a town in Vermont that has a 6,000-year history and nobody knows it," Mullin continued.

He said he has so far obtained an updated list of owners and businesses and updated property value information, determined land uses and infrastructure strengths and weaknesses, and examined historic attributes and current zoning.

Mullin, who is business partners with Kotval in Mullin Associates Inc., eventually turned the floor over to Nieto-Mattei, a landscape architect with The Berkshire Design Group Inc. (Northampton, Mass.) who is working with them on this project.

Nieto-Mattei used a laser pointer to go through the three draft options available.

Option A would not change any land use but would emphasize the history, a new traffic network and an ability to move while Option B requires some re-parcelization and adds some other features. Option C, on the other hand, proposes significant change to the island. There would be 30,000-square-foot building, major re-parcelization and increased parking.

Nieto-Mattei also suggested more pedestrian pathways and using hiking trails to boost tourism. He went on to mention the island should appear more inviting, adding that he had no idea of its history or agricultural resources the first time he visited.

Before Mullin asked members of the audience what they thought, he stressed that all options discussed are merely drafts and nothing is finalized.

Members of the commission expressed enthusiasm and said they appreciated the presentation and learned a lot about how they should emphasize their unique history.

After the public hearing ended, Lacombe said he loved what the guests laid out.

"It’s exciting," he said. "I like to have somebody from outside come and give us these ideas."

Gary Fox, the director of the Sustainable Valley Group, was in attendance and said the hearing was a good preliminary step in the process and was impressed with the number of projects presented. He said they all have the potential to change the appearance and attractiveness of the island.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.