NCDN has been super-busy with a lot of behind-the-scenes work since our January 19th meeting one year ago. Meetings, phone calls, reports, registrations, more meetings — you know, all the stuff required to create an organization, build partnerships and get buy-in from our community. So now it’s time to meet again.
So Save the Date! The next NCDN public meeting will be January 20th at the Brown Public Library Community Room. To help you remember, just click the Add to Calendar link below:
Here’s what you can expect to hear!
- NCDN accomplishments in 2016. Not surprisingly, economic development work involves meetings, phone calls, emails and site visits. You may recall the Night on the Common we coordinated in July. Or you may have participated in our “New Look for Northfield” survey. But our work has been much more extensive than these two activities. We’ll take a few minutes to let you know what we’ve been up to.
- What’s next! NCDN has defined our goals and vision. We’ve crafted specific strategies to achieve concrete objectives. And we’ve written it all down in the NCDN Executive Summary. You’ll get a copy of this important document at the January 20th meeting. We’d also like to hear your ideas and feedback in the days following the meeting. Special thanks to Ro Pelletier for providing a draft review back in June!
- A whole lot of Thank Yous!
- And the question, What do you want to do?
NCDN has helped set the table. Now it’s time to apply for grants and implement strategies. We’ll give you a run-down on project areas. Is there a specific project you want to help tackle? Do you have time or expertise you’d like to contribute? If you can’t participate, do you have some bucks to throw into the kitty? Economic development requires coordinated, behind-the-scenes commitment. Northfield needs Tiger Teams to roll up the sleeves and get down to work.
Who do we need? Everyone. This is just a short list.
- Benefactors. Northfield needs to demonstrate financial commitment as we seek corporate and institutional donors. We also need to raise funds for a matching grant application by February 15th.
- Real Estate Agents. There’s a new demographic of homebuyers in Northfield. Let’s talk!
- Local Business Owners. Define your needs. Are you interested in tax incentives? Foot traffic? Marketing? What’s on your short-term and long-term wish-list?
- Mountain Bikers. You’re part of a huge growth opportunity.
- Grant writers. You know how much you’re needed.
- Are you connected to Developers? We need you to tap into your networks and help close deals on new construction projects.
- How about Website Developers? Northfield needs a vibrant, interactive, content-driven site.
- Photographers. We need a portfolio of images to highlight Northfield’s beauty and vitality.
- Policy Wonks. You know who you are. Northfield desperately needs your expertise. We need a sophisticated, innovative local government and committees. We need people who can match local planning with state and federal programs.
So save the date and attend the meeting January 20th! In the meantime, think about how you can contribute to economic development. Share your expertise! Write a check! Spread the word! Get involved!
And as always, thanks for your help!
Six weeks ago I promised ice cream in the post, “EcDev: What’s new behind the scenes!” Well, it’s time for ice cream! But first, a few really intriguing questions:
What if there were walk-in shops on both sides of the East Street Block?
What if someone built a 4-story micro-apartment complex on Freightyard Way, overlooking the proposed Water Street Park across the Dog River?
What if Northfield’s downtown housed more people who could support local businesses without the need to create more parking spaces? What if we had a bigger tax base without having to clear forests or parcel out farmland along our dirt roads?
And finally, what if someone asked you to share what you think about all this?
Well, on Tuesday you can share your thoughts and think more deeply about opportunities for Northfield’s future and economic recovery. The Northfield Community Development Network (NCDN) is hosting “Night on the Common” in partnership with the Planning Commission and Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission.
As you may know, the Farmer’s Market runs from 3-6pm, so there will be plenty of time to socialize and buy local.
From 6-7pm there will be a presentation by consultants who have drafted a conceptual plan regarding economic development on Freightyard Way and the East Street Block — two prime locations in Northfield’s downtown. Their purpose: to find out what you think!
You can also provide input on the NCDN’s proposed brand for Northfield at one table under the tent. Advocates for the proposed Water Street Park will also be present at a table of their own. And of course, there will be ice cream!
So take a break from the usual routine and come on down to the Farmer’s Market this week (July 19th)! Share your input on Northfield’s economic development and future developments. East Street Block.
You probably know the East Street Block from NSB to the Dog River. If you don’t happen to know the Freightyard Way area, here’s a picture slideshow. It’s probably one of the easiest places to build new structures, with power, water, and sewer all set to go. And lots of space in the back next to the scenic Dog River.
If you haven’t followed Front Porch Forum or attended the most recent Selectboard meetings, you may not be aware of property owner concerns about roadside tree removal along two contiguous areas:
Smith Hill, Dole Hill, Stony Brook Rd. and Winch Hill, Bull Run, Messier Hill Rd.
About two-dozen residents and property owners attended the June 21st special Selectboard meeting with concerns about proposed tree removal along these roadsides. (See the Meeting Minutes June 14 & Minutes June 21 to catch up to speed.) Word had gotten around that Northfield’s road foreman had made a no-bid, no-contract deal with a private company to remove trees on Smith Hill. Many property owners had only received the information by word-of-mouth from neighbors. Obviously, property owners weren’t happy – but they were very civil and made no ill-will against the town foreman.
Ordinarily, roadside growth management isn’t a cause of public arousal — but this is because, ordinarily, roadside growth management is conducted on a regular basis, which means a generation of trees don’t have the opportunity to grow to full maturity along town roads and highways. 150 years ago almost all of Vermont’s landscape was denuded, but in our lifetimes, we’re used to tree-lined back roads. Some folks appreciate the aesthetics of tree canopies covering roadsides; others find these same sections of roads to be a nuisance and potentially unsafe.
But before we get into the subject, there are three things which need to be mentioned. I’m sure I can’t cover all the issues today, but let’s get started.
1. The bottom line is that, under municipal law, the Town has the authority to remove trees in road right-of-ways. However, procedures need to be followed. We need clear views and open ditches. We shouldn’t have dead trees or limbs falling in roadways. The Town has responsibilities to maintain highways. But the Town is required to communicate with landowners, ideally in a way that prevents controversy.
2. Part of these procedures include adherence to state policies, programs, and practices. Some policies may overlap, raising interesting questions. For example, does tree removal right next to a river, brook or stream — within a town right of way — comply with the Clean Water Act or the Riparian Buffer law?
3. Perhaps the best thing that can be done moving forward is for the Town to draft a comprehensive road and highway plan. The new Clean Water Act has created many new changes and requirements related to road maintenance. According to state documents, the development of a Road Stormwater Management Plan is under way. The process to develop the RSMP identifies, inventories and prioritizes sections of roads connected to surface waters, prioritizes maintenance, and provides a multi-year timeline for implementation. Why not work with the State to draft a local highway plan? There are new rules to follow, and we may as well work alongside experts from an early point.
So back to the basic point: Vermont statute authorizes a Town to remove trees. But there are rules a Town has to follow:
§ 904. Brush removal
The selectmen of a town, if necessary, shall cause to be cut and burned, or removed from within the limits of the highways under their care, trees and bushes which obstruct the view of the highway ahead or that cause damage to the highway or that are objectionable from a material or scenic standpoint. Shade and fruit trees that have been set out or marked by the abutting landowners shall be preserved if the usefulness or safety of the highway is not impaired. Young trees standing at a proper distance from the roadbed and from each other, and banks and hedges of bushes that serve as a protection to the highway or add beauty to the roadside, shall be preserved. On State highways, the Secretary shall have the same authority as the selectmen. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)
However, with only a word-of-mouth deal – a definite no-no in government — the tree removal company — Limlaw Pulpwood & Chipping — would have had a huge liability on their hands. Statute 901 says:
901. Removal of roadside growth
A person, other than the abutting landowner, shall not cut, trim, remove, or otherwise damage any grasses, shrubs, vines, or trees growing within the limits of a State or town highway, without first having obtained the consent of the Agency for State highways or the selectmen for town highways. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)
Violations result in a penalty between $10 and $100 for each offense, under statute 902. Lacking proof of consent (a contract) would have been a huge legal liability.
Another part of the process that didn’t fully take place recently was communication with landowners and the offering of felled trees, which are owned by the landowner, not the Town. The word-of-mouth deal offered the tree removal service company trees in exchange for service. The town can’t trade things it doesn’t own. It can offer only the trees a property owner doesn’t want to keep.
This leads to the question of “free” service. The word-of-mouth deal was described as “free” multiple times, but as we know, nothing in life is free. Sure, taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill. The work would be subsidized by property owners.
This leads to another question: what is the value of the contract? The insinuation was that the value of exchange was pulpwood stumpage for “$300/hr” tree removal service. (Apparently, roadside tree removal service costs as much as a New York attorney.)
But are Northfield’s back roads lined 100% with pulpwood? Not at all. There’s maple, pine, birch, black cherry, hemlock — all sorts of trees. Some trees have value as lumber, some as firewood. Even standing dead can have high-value. Spalted maple slabs retail in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Now, does a single property owner have enough trees to make it worth their while to cut, process and sell? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s fair to ask, “What is the sum value of trees some property owners — not all — contribute to offset the cost of the “free” contract?”
Does it matter? Well, from a practical perspective, if the property owners aren’t going to use felled trees, maybe not. But if property owners want to form a cooperative effort to maximize value for themselves, there’s no law stopping them.
No matter what property owners choose to do, we should at least acknowledge their contribution. If you think about it, roadside property owners will be essentially paying a double tax — a property tax, plus the value of trees the Town is giving away to pay for highway maintenance any resident may enjoy.
[Update: Since posting this article I’ve learned that the phrase “red-headed step-child” is an ethnic slur against Irish immigrants dating from the 1830s. My apology to anyone offended.]
April 10, 2016
At the first NCDN meeting back in December, someone suggested the need to do more for economic development beyond Depot Square and the downtown area, wondering aloud if Northfield Falls is being treated like the town’s
It’s easy to imagine why Northfield Falls residents and business owners may feel left out. Sure, they receive some of the same basic services as those on Depot Square and the University area. But it sometimes seems as if a disproportionate amount of infrastructure and development dollars go toward upgrading Depot Square at the expense of other neighborhood locations.
So why is this happening?
Well, we can chalk it up to good news. And it’s the kind of good news that gives Northfield potential to increase its work beyond its tiny downtown vale.
Northfield participates in Vermont’s Village Center Designation program, putting Depot Square higher on the State’s priority list for grants, tax credits and a whole lot of state & federal resources.
Northfield’s downtown received Village Center designation in May 2010 and won renewal in 2015.
This is good news, and it was achieved by hard work on the part of former Zoning Administrator Michele Braun, the folks on the Planning Commission & Zoning Board, and of course the Town Managers who served throughout the application, designation, and renewal periods. Achieving and maintaining Designated status is a huge step toward revitalization. Everyone who played a role in this effort deserves a long applause.
But you’re probably still wondering, how is this good news for Northfield Falls?
It’s possible to do the same for the Falls as what’s been done for the downtown. And more.
At a recent NCDN Weekly Workgroup meeting, the core group met with Richard Amore, Planning Coordinator for the Village Centers program at the Department of Housing & Community Development. Amore said not only is it possible for a single town to have multiple Designated Village Centers, several towns have two, some have three and one has four such districts. In fact, over twenty Vermont towns have more than one Designated Village Center. (To see the entire list, download the Excel file: Vermont Designated Village Centers.)
Northfield could apply for Designated Village Center status for the Falls, which would provide the same grant and tax credit opportunities currently available in the downtown. Additionally, the Town could apply for the Neighborhood Development Areas program, which encourages developers to provide new housing within a one-quarter mile radius around each Village Center. Northfield Falls doesn’t need to be left behind as the narrowly defined Depot Square area Village Center begins to thrive. Falls residents and business owners who may feel like their end of town is Northfield’s
red-headed step-child may consider approaching the Town Manager to inquire about the application process.
The likely response may be that it will be better to wait until we have a new Zoning Administrator. It takes a lot of work to put together the paperwork, meet with the appropriate people, etc, etc, etc. We need a ZA to lead this kind of project. But it also requires public input and commitment. This is where members of the NCDN (outside of the Weekly Workgroup) can play a positive role, if and when the decision to apply comes forward.
The Falls is an essential part of our community. It features the Town’s major non-event tourist attraction — four covered bridges — and roughly 1/4 of Northfield households. It’s the location of two local restaurants, two baseball fields, and four volleyball courts.
Northfield Falls is also the home of the St. Jacob of Alaska Mission, serving all of Central and Northern Vermont. This is one of only two Russian Orthodox churches in Vermont, adding to Northfield’s developing diversity in non-Western religions. (The Trijang Buddhist Institute in Little Northfield is the North American Seat of His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.)
Defining neighborhood districts also creates new branding opportunities. For example, a segment of Northfield Falls may be branded as the Bridge District. It makes more sense than “the Falls” because of the iconic covered bridges along Cox Brook Road. There may be two sets of waterfalls, but one is dammed and inaccessible, and the other doesn’t have a nearby parking area. Tourists come for the covered bridges. It would make sense to brand the district for its primary attraction.
For examples, the hypothetical Water Street & North Main districts could be prime for housing revitalization. The field along the west side of Route 12 South in the hypothetical 12 and 12A district (bottom right, in dark blue) is an excellent location for mixed use development. And the hypothetical Highland and South Main Districts are areas where we can focus on historic preservation.
Obviously, we don’t need twelve Village Centers as outlined in the Google map pictured here. But the exercise of defining discrete areas helps us identify different opportunities.
The timing is perfect for this kind of forward thinking. At the March 22nd Selectboard meeting, the board approved the formation of a Development Review Board model of local planning. Without going into details, the bottom line is that the Planning Commission will focus exclusively on planning and policy. This means the members will have more time to think about Northfield’s long-term future. Who knows, maybe this might include the creation of a Northfield Falls “Bridge District” Village Center.
Some residents and business owners who don’t live or operate in the Falls may wonder, “What’s in it for me?” if we create a second Village Center. I suppose the first thought that comes to mind is: “It’s not about me. It’s about us.” (Yea, yea, it’s a political soundbite, but the sentiment is appropriate for community development.) This is about developing new opportunities for Northfield as a whole, encouraging more people to visit and possibly reside in any Northfield neighborhood.
One of the principles of economic development in a good planning process is to integrate government, businesses, and the community to work together toward the common good. In Northfield, this means looking beyond the tight boundaries of the downtown Common. Let’s look to the Falls as an opportunity waiting to happen. And let’s roll up our sleeves to get this work started.
Northfield was mostly at the bottom of the wave from 2000-2015. Moving forward, here’s the good news: there’s always a cresting wave on the horizon.
Waves of participation and positive growth come and go in every community. As I’ve met with several long-term leaders in the community to discuss economic & community development over the last few months, there’s been a common warning that goes something like this:
“Our organization thrived for many years, but after a while, members became less active. Years would pass, and then we’d see a new group of people who would bring a new level of energy to our work.”
In my observation, Northfield was mostly at the bottom of the wave from 2000-2015. I’ll give some specific examples below but before that, here’s the general context: Different organizations have waxed and waned over this decade and a half, and there have been some success stories along the way. But there were enough failures to suggest an overall decline.
Moving forward, here’s the good news: there’s always a cresting wave on the horizon. Northfield has always been a town screaming with potential. When a critical mass of residents and voters get behind specific projects, we’ve seen amazing upswings and huge positive outcomes.
Some examples: In the late 1990s a group of parents and supporters raised millions of dollars for new construction and the revitalization of outdated facilities. Many of these projects have become sustainable gems of our community, including the following:
- A new school with expanded facilities for all students K-12. A new, privately-funded hardwood floating-floor system basketball court. An enviable, state of the art theater and auditorium.
- A revitalized Municipal Park, with a new Olympic-sized swimming pool, a new playground and a rebuilt sports field.
- An expanded Brown Public Library with a new Community Room.
- A completely restored building to house the Northfield Historical Society collections.
Credits: Leslie Striebe, NMHS, Go!Northfield, Nate Freeman
The American economy was prosperous, our youth population was growing and an indomitable spirit of public service in Northfield was at a peak. The wave of public participation was at a crest.
Some of the good work continued into the lost decade and a half. The Gray Building Coalition was formed in 2002, and by April 2004 had raised $789,540 toward its $1.5 million Capital Campaign to restore the iconic building overlooking Northfield’s downtown.
Despite the incredible success of the Gray Building Coalition, Northfield was on its way to decline at the beginning of the new millennium. Local attitudes began to change. From 2000 to 2005, Northfield struggled to pass the school budget. Frankly, this was an amazingly rapid turn of events. How could a school with such huge new investments become the target of negative attitudes so quickly? The wave crashed so hard, in 2005 it took 5 votes to finally pass a budget in September. The school had to borrow money to fund operations from July 1st into the beginning of the fall semester.
In the mid-2000s, there was also a movement to further divide the Town and Village, which were already separate entities, as the two governing agencies — the Selectboard and the Village Trustees — began a very contentious struggle against each other. The negative attitudes in local government culminated in 2011 when the Selectobard fired the Town Manager while the Village Trustees retained her services. There was an utter dysfunction in local government which created a negative reputation for Northfield throughout the entire state of municipal professionals. Heated debates over town highway taxes, the Northfield Electric Department and a host of other non-issues wasted a lot of energy which could have been put to more productive work. This chapter didn’t come to a close until July 2014 when the two boards became one under a Town-Village merger.
And in 2015, things really went south. Five businesses including Comfort Colors closed up or left town. A home was destroyed by arson with death resulting. Some idiot decided to blow off his hand with a pipe bomb. And Northfield experienced yet another local governemnt controversy, drawing out dozens of residents in protest against the Selectboard for moving to fire Chief Jim Dziobek.
What the heck happened?
The entire period wasn’t wasted, of course. From 2006 onward, Northfield’s schools began to improve and at this time has been awarded Top 10 in Vermont status and a Silver ranking by US News and World Report. Norwich University grew substantially, expanding new dorm facilities and developing its campus at a rapid rate.
But there was a lasting and bitter negative tone that forced our community to work on conflict resolution vs. community development. This attitude played out in local government and frustrated even the most dedicated residents, employees, and volunteers. The greatest local government success wasn’t really even a success if we think about outcomes. The grand idea of a “One Northfield” merger of Village and Town was simply a testament to how terrible things had gotten.
But if we look back to the late 1990s, we can remind ourselves how much this town can accomplish when it puts its mind to it. Our lost decade-and-a-half has given us time to learn how to *not* do things.
And we should also take a moment to consider whether or not the way things were done to achieve success 20 years ago are models we should use today. By this I mean to say, we may need to think about community and economic development as intertwined activities. When I think about the waves of participation, public service and eventual decline, I notice two trends:
- When waves of participation are on the rise, Northfield invests in non-profit properties as the primary method for community development. (Like many communities, we have a love for building-related projects.)
- When waves of participation decline, Northfield focuses its attention to property taxes and targets the budgets which sustain community development projects we so recently championed.
What does this tell us? Well, most of all, it suggests we’ll need to think about increasing our tax base as a community development initiative as the next wave of participation and growth begins to rise. We need to balance private sector and public sector interests to lessen swift, dramatic and ironic changes in local attitudes when a handful of hard-working volunteers get tired and move on to other things.
We’ll take a look at this irony a bit more in a “Part 2” of this topic since today’s post is getting a bit long. For the time being, here are the main points for our follow-up:
- When things are good, community development doesn’t fully consider the expansion of our tax base and economic development.
- When things are bad, we cut budgets in ways that diminish community development and further contracts our capacity for economic development.
But first, here’s a primer for the uninitiated:
Road Sign Project NCDN will be collaborating with Leslie Striebe and and Emily Wrigley of Go!Northfield on the visual design (not structural) of road signs to be placed at the North and South entrypoints along Route 12. Leslie has worked tirelessly on this project for coming on to two years. We’re excited to work with Leslie and Emily as this project comes closer to completion, and other projects in the years to come.
Banner Project: Sally Davidson and Wendy Rae of the Recreation Committee have proposed a road banner project and we are happy to work with them as well. Ideally, Go!Northfield’s signs and the Rec Committee’s banners should be visually compatible. This is a great example of how NCDN can help coordinate similar work by local groups and facilitate projects across the community.
Tree Planting Project: NCDN has joined the Conservation Committee on the development of a tree planting project. Pamela Knox of the Conservation Committee has agreed to become our Network Liaison so we have ongoing cross-communication as the Conservation Committee proceeds with its important work. Ruth Ruttenberg, also of the Conservation Committee, will be writing a grant application to help fund the project.
Northfield Rotary Club: Bob Doyon and Nicole DiDomenico have agreed to Network partnership and serve as NCDN liaisons. The Rotary Club has provided years of public service and we look forward to joining their efforts.
056VT Television Show: On March 21st, professional videographer and television show producer, Andrea Melville, is launching her new interview-format show on Channel 7. While we don’t have a project with 056VT yet, NCDN looks forward to a working relationship with 056VT. Please join Andrea at the Community Room Monday, March 21st at 7:00 pm for her live debut performance!
Norwich University: While we don’t have official Network Liaisons with Norwich University at this time, NCDN membership includes several faculty and staff employees in various departments. NCDN is poised to facilitate communication and potential projects of mutual benefit for Norwich and Northfield. We look forward to an opportunity to formalize relationships with both the university and the town as NCDN strives to improve local vitality.
Next Meeting: The Weekly Workgroup decided to hold the next meeting when we have tangible work to share, like final logo designs, etc. The tent We are reaching out to the Director of Revitalizing Waterbury as a potential speaker. RW is an official non-profit partner with the Town of Waterbury. RW’s work has led to a substantial rebound. Their work can inform NCDN as we move forward to improve local vitality.