SWANTON — For the first time in 20 years, Swanton’s joint legislative body met to present shared plans for town improvement and discuss siting for renewable energy projects, downtown redevelopment, and other local issues.
The combined town and village boards met at the Swanton Village Complex on March 29 at 7 p.m. The message was clear. “We’re not ‘the Town and the Village’ here,” said Jim Hubbard, chair of the Planning Commission. “We’re all sitting at the same table.”
At that table were members of the Planning Commission and Development Review Board, as well as the Select Board and Board of Trustees.
Hubbard served as moderator for the nearly two-hour meeting.
He said, “What I’ve seen or heard around the coffee shops and in town is that we’re still excited about the community visit – but we’re spinning our wheels.”
The Vermont Council on Rural Development visited Swanton in January 2015. More than 200 people attended the discussions, regarding education in Swanton, economic development, drugs and other community issues.
The community visit team used suggestions from those discussions to establish priorities, which were presented to Swanton residents for review the following March.
Then, in April, Swanton created an implementation plan in conjunction with the VCRD. The plan outlines community actions for the near future. It focuses on land use, historic and cultural resources, economic development, public facilities and services, energy, housing, natural resources and transportation.
“We have to get going [on implementing the plan],” Hubbard said, “or suddenly it’s five years down the road.”
Hubbard emphasized that the planning commission would be more active in supervising Swanton’s other municipal bodies, blaming a lack of cooperation and communication for slow progress in Swanton.
“We’re really going to get aggressive with the municipal bodies and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’” Hubbard said.
He made clear the commission’s number one priority: renewable energy, specifically amending and identifying renewable energy sites.
The planning commission expects to have a new energy plan by next month, and, by May or June, a renewable energy section in that plan.
Hubbard mentioned Senate Bill 230, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee March 25. The bill would allow towns to decide where renewable energy projects are built within their borders.
“All towns are going to need renewable energy plans,” Hubbard said. “So this is definitely our number one issue.”
But he clarified, “We are not afraid of what anyone says we can do. We are Swanton. But at least we’ll have something we can be proud of.”
Select Board Chair Daniel Billado mentioned the “Vermont Energy Rebellion,” 118 towns rejecting specific in-town renewable energy plans due to lack of input.
Billado referred to a November vote in which Swanton residents rejected the Swanton Wind project 731-160.
“I think Swanton started a fire under the whole state of Vermont,” he said.
Hubbard said that’s why Swanton needs its own residentially approved renewable energy plan.
“We need to let Montpelier know that this is our town, and we’re going to do what we want,” he said.
Trustee Chris Leach emphasized the user cost of energy can’t be adversely affected by a new plan.
“I feel like this is the yellow elephant in the room,” Leach said. “The normal ratepayer of Swanton village shouldn’t pay more because someone put some subproject out there.
“The idea is not to just save the environment, but to make it affordable as well.” Hubbard agreed.
“It never hurts to say this is where we stand, run over us,” Hubbard said. “And if they give us trouble, it’s just more cause to scream about local control.”
In addition to wind power, another controversial Swanton issue is the town dam. Vermont Fish and Wildlife is continuing to press for the dam’s removal. According to Village Manager Reggie Beliveau, a recent visit by a member of the Lake Champlain Walleye Association offered a different take.
“He said this waterway has up to 35 percent natural repopulation of walleye,” Beliveau said. “It’s the only one in the state where the number’s that high.”
Beliveau expressed desire for a learning center and hatchery at the dam.
“The main idea,” Hubbard said, “is to protect Swanton. We want to move forward, not backwards. This [implementation] plan is important. We want to make sure we make amendments every two years, not every six months.”
Hubbard said that in late April or early May, the planning commission would walk the entire distance from 1st St. all the way to Interstate 91 in an attempt to gauge issues in the Village Green Park – namely, truck traffic.
“How do reinvent [that area]?” Hubbard asked. “There’s probably not going to be a $100 million bridge built over to Highgate.”
Hubbard said the planning commission has discussed following the University of Vermont’s lead, placing beacon lights along the sidewalks ¬– as Hubbard put it, “9-1-1 every 10 yards,” and, additionally, a link between Swanton High School and the downtown area.
“[We need to] get those kids off [Vt. Route] 78 and that dangerous corner,” Hubbard said.
He called these plans “item number two” on the commission’s agenda.
Select Board Vice Chair Joel Clark discussed a feasibility study into the possibility of new sidewalks in the Village Green Park.
“It could turn into grant money and then construction,” he said.
The study’s findings will be presented Apr. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Village Complex.
Ed Daniel, a member of the planning commission, said it’s time to put thought into hiring a full-time town planner.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of time to write these things down,” Daniel said, referring to the commission’s work. “I can take time and run with dreams. But the rest of us, we’re volunteers. They don’t have time.”
Hank Lambert, who works on the Swanton Enhancement Project, said, “The community visit made it very clear we need a point person.”
He pointed to Johnson, a town with a full-time person in charge of community economic development.
Clark said, “We don’t want to double-tap the taxpayers and have that position come out of the town. We don’t want to say the town pays half and the village pays half.”
Hubbard said the planning commission will identify the Village Historic District within the next few months.
The commission wants to reinvent the downtown area.
“We thought that would be the place to put things,” Hubbard said. “But… I guess not. There’s nothing good happening down there. We could take Crowley’s or the memorial auditorium and turn them into shops, restaurants, salons.”
He pointed to Richford’s Sweat Cummings building as an example of successful revitalization. The Sweat Cummings building housed a mill for more than 100 years until closing in 1980. It was nearly demolished in 2002.
Instead, the building was renovated, and now contains a grocery store, the Richford Health Center and senior housing.
Revitalizing Swanton’s park and downtown areas isn’t just motivated by commercial interests. Hubbard stressed the need for substance abuse programs, an issue with local teens.
“We always knew what went on in the back of the park,” Hubbard said. “We need places to clear out the riff-raff.” Hubbard suggested turning the memorial auditorium into a housing complex.
“More inhabitants, less riff-raff,” Hubbard said. “We all know what goes on in back of those buildings.”
Beliveau bemoaned the lack of coordination between Swanton’s municipal bodies.
“We have different needs,” Leach said, “but when one need crosses the other, we help each other.”
The meeting finished with trustee Adam Paxman reading an email he received from a visiting attendee at Swanton’s last car show. The message seemed to encompass the mood of the night.
Paxman beamed as he read, “Your town is truly the picturesque New England town I thought only existed on Norman Rockwell postcards.”