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Merging planning with economic development?

A proposal to merge the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission (CVRPC) with the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation (CVEDC) has at least one local planner concerned about mixing planning with economic development.

The CVRPC has 23 member towns, each with a representative on the commission. The CVEDC is a membership-based organization with businesses, nonprofits and municipal representatives. Both organizations engaged in a study to consider whether merging them made sense and next week a final report on the proposal will be issued.

Merging would require an affirmative vote from all CVRPC towns to dissolve the planning organization, adopt newly written bylaws and form a new entity. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin's Challenge for Change, that called for state entities and programs to consider consolidation as a method of saving money or improving efficiencies, spurred the merger study.

Don LaHaye used to be a member of the Warren Planning Commission but has now moved to Waitsfield and is Waitsfield's representative to the CVRPC. He has concerns that the merger will erode individual member town's representation on important regional planning issues and also has concerns that the merger mixes planning considerations with economic development priorities inappropriately.

"We looked at the issue of consolidation in terms of cost savings and efficiencies and found no cost savings, but some members wanted to go ahead anyway and there's a sense that it is an attempt to gain more control of the planning and zoning process by those whose priorities are economic development. Because, without a merger, 23 town reps would be making planning decisions and with the merger those 23 town votes are diluted by 12 new board/voting members who do not answer to their towns," LaHaye said.

The regional planning commission works with member towns on local and regional planning issues. The regional planning commission also approves Town Plans and works with the Vermont Public Service Board on the review process for alternative energy installations including commercial wind and solar.

The Warren Planning Commission is opposed to the merger, LaHaye said, and has written a letter stating its opposition to the merger and even having the CVRPC vote on the merger.

Laura Hill-Eubanks, a member of the regional planning commission (representing Northfield) also concurs that the merger is not a good idea. After reviewing the final report of the consolidation committee and the proposed new bylaws she provided a written analysis to the CVRPC outlining her concerns.

She challenged the idea that there would be any financial savings and challenged the study cited by the consolidation committee which suggested there were deficiencies in Vermont's model of a separate planning entity and a separate economic development entity.

She also points out that under the new structure the representatives on the new board would be under no obligation to be responsive to the former member towns.

"Going forward, the regional planning commission will be shaping what our region will look like. In fact the regional planning commissions are likely to be tasked with deciding where commercial wind farms should and should not go. It is imperative that all municipalities be on equal footing when these types of issues come up," Hill-Eubanks wrote.

"If there are 12 members on the commission who do not answer to their municipalities and thus do not have their towns' interests at heart, these types of decisions may end up being made in a way that runs roughshod over the priorities of the member towns. Alternatively, if these additional representatives disproportionately come from one or a few towns, they could form a voting bloc that shifts the outcome to favor their towns at the expense of the other towns," she continued.

She also took issue with the new bylaws' failure to include conservation considerations as well as wetlands concerns when reviewing proposed development.

According to the executive summary of the consolidation committee, which will be presented to the organizations on May 14, benefits of the merger include getting planners and developers to sit at the same table working together. Proponents note that combining the organizations would allow for more coordination between development and planning.

"We believe that combining the two organizations sends a great signal to the public and to the business community that Central Vermont is interested in taking a holistic approach to planning and development, that it sees these processes not as adversaries but as two sides of the same coin with an avowed desire to work together to achieve the best result for our communities and enterprises which wish to invest in them," the executive summary notes.

The consolidation committee voted 8-1 to pursue consolidation. David Strong was the dissenting member of the committee. In his written dissent he takes issue with the premise that merging the two organizations will strengthen Vermont's economic development prospects and he argues that many CVRPC member towns are small and rural and do not have a planner or a planning department to help them deal with land use and environmental issues. Any change to the regional planning commission that might diminish the responsiveness of the CVRPC to its member towns is cause for concern, he wrote, "as is the potential shift away from broad-based planning for environmental conservation and human needs to one focused primarily on development."

Strong, who represents Plainfield on the CVRPC, also pointed out that the idea a merger resulting in cost savings was incorrect as a merger would immediately mean a loss of $14,000 to the CVEDC.

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