Another View: Brattleboro planning document is two steps forward, three steps back


Vermont Business Magazine says "Vt. businesses restless, looking out of state." The Reformer says "Survey shows troubling trends." "Vermont named least tax friendly state for retirees," by Kiplinger.

Town infrastructure, jobs, housing; I've watched the problems grow for many years. I grew up in Brattleboro, in a working-class family, started and operated many businesses, created many jobs and much housing. I've watched the process of being an entrepreneur become increasingly more difficult. It's become so difficult that most of the entrepreneurs of my generation have stopped creating.

We no longer can afford to create housing or jobs and it's becoming increasingly more difficult to pay taxes. I don't know the figures but I suspect that most projects happening in Brattleboro happen with public funds and private projects are few.

Much of what has stifled the growth in town improvements have been the ever increasing hurdles to be jumped in the planning process. Progress has suffered through death by a thousand cuts. (These cuts, of course are not all town oriented. Every time the legislature goes into session the small business community trembles.) Every thought of making residential or business improvement is followed by fear of the process. Studying what's possible, hiring professionals, dealing with the scrutiny and uncertainty is daunting. Over many years, i have generally experienced good interactions with the individuals in the departments and on the boards. But the decisions of whether to take on a project are often a matter of long term timing. Individuals on the boards and planning department come and go. Whether or not to take on the risk of trying to move forward with a project very much depends on the timing of which personalities are in place on those boards or in the department.

I know that there is a difference of opinion about whether or not the town should grow or not. Many people want a "Stepford" town that looks cute and cool and discourages growth. Many others need growth and jobs and income to continue to be able to live here. I understand the valid reasoning on both sides.

I also know that the increasing burden to moving forward does not really lie with the planning professionals. Somebody in our town decided to create that department. The people in the department have a job. They are paid to do it and they do the biggest job they can. They are professionals. They do a professional job establishing "best practices." Somebody also has decided to pay tax dollars to fund the department, to fund a consulting company to lay out these "best practices" in yet another stricter document.

Now the decision makers have to decide whether the town should continue marching in the same direction of never ending increased strictness of rules and regulations or change course, think out of the box, and figure out how to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and residents so they can go back to creating jobs, housing and community assets. The town plan calls for making the process more simple not more strict.

So finally I'll get to my opinion of the proposed zoning and planning changes for Brattleboro. It's probably clear in which direction I lean. As my grandmother would say, we've become "too big for our britches." I've been listening to many of the individual reactions about how specific proposed changes will affect residences and businesses. Picking it apart can go on forever. Solving these individual roadblocks that will be created initially and will grow over time is not really the issue. The issue is whether or not the town should move forward by eliminating most restrictions and slashing the process that everyone is forced to go through, or continue going backward by increasing the restrictions, costing the taxpayers more and more money and discouraging the creation of future jobs and housing. The town did just fine before all the "best practices" and it sure was cheaper to live here.

We want the coolest town that middle class money can afford. But we've created a regulatory environment that allows us to afford less and less. Sure, reasonable safety and environmental issues always need to be insured but current aesthetic tastes can be directed through guidelines rather than rules and regulations. Mistakes will occur either way but at least the town can move forward in a somewhat organic, slightly chaotic way rather than continuing to just stand still.

Of course opinions are personal. If I didn't have to work for a living I might lean in the other direction. The thing that tips me toward growth and jobs and affordability is that I have chosen to live in a "hub" town. If I lived in Grafton or some other cute country town, I would probably lean toward no growth.

The new planning document does have some loosening of requirements but mostly (for people who want to make improvements, both business and residential) it is two steps forward and three steps back.

The professionals probably really believe and will say that we can have both in Brattleboro. That we can continue to make our rules and regulations more strict and still grow in a controlled manner. Well, it just ain't so.

Dennis Smith is the owner of The Marina on Putney Road. He can be contacted at


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