The Lincoln County News, April 14, 2005

Growth with Guidance, Planners Tell Whitefield Selectmen

By Lucy L. Martin

Whether Whitefield plans for growth or not, it will grow. And if no “road map” to guide that growth is adopted, “you could have a race track next to your house,” according to one comprehensive planning committee member.

Sue McKeen, one of several on the volunteer panel who met with the board of selectmen on April 7, added, “People talk about rights to do what they want to do, but their neighbors have rights too.”

Other members took turns telling selectmen Charlene Bartlett, Bruce Mathews and Steve McCormick why they stand behind a comprehensive plan for the town.

David Dixon underscored the importance of having the selectmen know what was in the recently completed draft plan and provide feedback and support, in order to increase the effort’s chances of winning voter approval at the general election in November.

Dixon, a business consultant, said he has a special perspective “from the industrial development side of things.” He spoke briefly of large compressor stations for power plan facilities he has helped locate in other parts of the state and which sound like a refrigerator humming. “I can see how it can change the rural character of a community. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but I feel the town deserves the right to have some input into allowing one to locate here and to set standards that are more protective than state standards, if that is what we want,” he emphasized.

The point reinforced McKeen’s concern that the “neighbor” making changes next door might in fact be an offsite company that owns the land and is more concerned about its rate of return on investment than the impact it might have on local residents.

Chuck Acker, who worked on the revised plan that failed in 1992, said a majority of people at that time “were concerned about restrictions on the use of property. So I’m interested in striking a balance between people who like to plan how the town is to develop, and those who fear the plan because it will restrict them.

Acker summed up his approach as balancing a “libertarian notion” with a more community oriented notion “that we have to work together to preserve what drew us to Whitefield in the first place.”

In some instances, the draft plan makes ordinances more flexible. It encourages the minimum lot size to be changed, for example, so that fewer dwellings can be placed on less land and open space can be preserved. The higher density approach helps retain a sense of openness that the medium density approach - a “checkerboard” pattern of houses scattered across the countryside – does not.

The plan also encourages making the “intent to build” notice, now voluntary, a requirement. To be fair in assessing taxes, the town needs to know what development is taking place; otherwise, “the rest of us pay higher taxes,” Dixon commented.

He said the plan is not a mandate but “a vision of what the community should be.” That vision includes neighborliness, a sense of community, farms and farmlands, concentrated residential and commercial development in traditional village areas and along Rt. 17, and unpolluted water bodies. It also encompasses a variety of small, low-impact businesses and outdoor recreational opportunities.

On the question of zoning, Dixon said, “People go nuts when you say zoning. The plan doesn’t call for zoning but it does call for preferred use areas, places where industrial development should happen, where it is most appropriate.”

Dixon also said that while most people think the plan is about land use, it is about much more. The committee also considered the town’s transportation needs and road safety, the inadequate size of the town office, and maintaining the town’s fiscal soundness and its ability to pay for services through fair valuation. Rising education costs also came under close scrutiny.

In the course of compiling information, the committee made several surprising discoveries. Annual revenue sources between 1993 and 2003 show the property valuation went up 27 percent. A huge increase in excise taxes (156 percent) has helped hold down the property tax rate in recent years, contributing about 20 percent to Whitefield’s local revenues.

Dixon said there was a “staggering increase” in county taxes, which went up 70 percent between 1999 and 2003. “This really surprised me.”

It was recommended that maps showing how population has grown in the past 50 years be posted around town.

At the committee’s table displaying plan copies, summaries and surveys during March town meeting, only one person signed up to host a gathering that comp planning members could attend to talk about the “road map”.

More publicity is needed as the outreach phase of the committee’s work begins. Most important, said Dixon, is the selectmen’s support. “We don’t want to go out without you guys on board. We all need to be pulling in the same direction.”

Selectmen chair Bartlett gave a time frame of six weeks for the board to read the plan and make responses.

The next meeting of the comprehensive planning committee is this Thurs., April 14, at 7 p.m. at the school.

Vol. 130 - No. 15

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