Hartford’s Town Plan Update and Overlay Districts; including Wildlife Connector, Agricultural and Rural Lands
The Town of Hartford includes the villages of White River Junction, Wilder, Hartford Village, Quechee and West Hartford and has a population of 10,000. Although the Town has experienced a great deal of development in the last several decades, the Town is fortunate that much of its rural character remains. In 2002, the Town began a process to update the Town Plan. The process included extensive public participation. A Steering Committee comprised of representatives from town boards, commissions and organizations was formed to work with the Planning Commission and Town staff on the plan update. The Town received a Municipal Planning Grant to hire a consultant to launch a public participation campaign that included a series of community meetings in the five villages and conduct focus group discussions. Next, a build-out analysis was undertaken to determine if the existing zoning matched the public's vision for the Town. The analysis revealed that there was a disconnect between the existing Zoning Regulations and the community vision. The existing Zoning Regulations would allow too much development in the rural areas and not enough development in the villages where the infrastructure could better accommodate development (town water and sewer, public transit, sidewalks, schools, community facilities and parks. Town residents also wanted to protect the Town's rural character. This was a good community exercise that led to an analysis that would lead to the development of zoning regulations that would be more in line with the community vision.
Following the build-out analysis, the Town Plan Steering Committee began work to develop land use policies for the village areas. This process went smoothly and quickly and resulted in recommendations to increase density and encourage infill development in the village areas. However, developing polices for rural lands was far more challenging. As a result, a Rural Lands Subcommittee (RLS) was established to develop recommendations for the rural areas of Hartford. Made up of three Conservation Commission members and two Town staff members, the RLS began developing recommendations for the rural areas that would protect natural resources and maintain rural character.
First, the RLS began to develop zoning changes to reduce density. This resulted in the creation of a new zoning district (Rural Lands 10) which would reduce the density from one lot per five acres to one lot per ten acres for the most rural sections of Hartford. At the same time, the minimum lot size was reduced to one acre to encourage clustering of housing while retaining the one lot per ten acre density. This would result in less land for development and result in greater amounts of forests and farmland. This approach was well-received for most of Hartford. However, one of the more rural neighborhoods felt that one lot per ten acres was too high a density and they were opposed to clustered housing. Instead, they opted for a new zoning district (Forest/Conservation) that requires one lot per 28 acres. This would allow lots large enough to enroll in the current use program for forest land. Although there were a few large property owners opposed to the new zoning district, there were far more who supported it, resulting in its approval.
Next, the RLS developed a series of overlay districts to ensure the development in rural areas was done in such a way that protected natural resources and rural character. This resulted in a new approach to rural development in Hartford. Historically, development in rural areas had not considered the impact on natural resources or rural character. A Rural Lands Overlay District was established for all rural zoning districts in Hartford. The objective of the district is to promote the preservation of the rural character, sensitive features and natural resources, including prime agricultural soils, wetlands, steep slopes, important wildlife habitat, scenic views, ridgelines and hillsides. Development in rural areas would have to be carefully designed to avoid impacts on natural resources and maintain the rural character.
The RLS then developed an Agricultural Overlay District for three areas of Hartford that contained a large amount of prime agricultural soils and agricultural soils of statewide importance. The objective of the district is to promote the continuation of agriculture, retain the maximum possible amount of agricultural lands, which often provide important scenic views, protect historically viable farmland and prime and statewide agricultural soils, and preserve Hartford's rural character, scenic characteristics including open lands, views, and working landscape qualities in accordance with the Hartford Master Plan. Development within the district would have to be carefully designed to avoid impacts on agricultural soils and agricultural operations.
The RLS then developed the Wildlife Connector Overlay District. The objective of the district is to provide sufficient area for animals to move freely between conserved lands, undeveloped private lands, contiguous forest habitat, and other important habitat, land features, and natural communities within and beyond the boundaries of the Town in order to meet their necessary survival requirements. The area selected for the Wildlife Connector Overlay District was based around three large protected properties and their surroundings that constituted a large unfragmented forested area: Quechee Lakes Section 5D (over 700 acres protected under Act 250) Hartford Town Forest (565 acres) and the Army Corps of Engineers lands in Hartford and adjoining Hartland (over 700 acres). Corridors, approximately ' mile wide, were created connecting each of these properties to other large unfragmented forested areas in Hartford and surrounding towns. Within the corridors, development would be allowed. However, a sufficient buffer would be required to protect critical habitat and travel corridors for wildlife.
Since adoption of the Wildlife Connector Overlay District, the Hartford Conservation Commission has teamed up with nine other Vermont Conservation Commissions in the Upper Valley to form the Linking Lands Alliance (LLA). The LLA has been working on a wildlife initiative that has focused on animals such as moose, fisher, bobcat, and bear that require large acreages that extend beyond town boundaries in order to maintain healthy populations. According to the LLA, 'by providing habitat for these animals we ensure the ecological health of a multitude of other animals and plants with their own special needs that are important to the whole region.'
Overall, the rural land use recommendations including the overlay districts took two years to develop and included several community meetings to ensure that the public supported the changes. An important part of the effort to protect natural resources was improved mapping. The Town received mapping assistance from the Regional Planning Commission (Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission -TRORC ) and the Vermont of Fish and Wildlife Department (VF&WD). The TRORC provided natural resource mapping throughout the Town. This included wetlands, steep slopes, streams, ponds and rivers, flood zones, prime agricultural soils and other ecologically sensitive areas unsuitable for development. The VF&WD provided wildlife suitability maps of Hartford and the larger landscape beyond Hartford that showed the unfragmented forested areas of surrounding towns and how they connect to unfragmented forests in Hartford.
Agricultural Land, Forest Land, Land Management, Land Protection, Outreach, partnerships, Town Plan
The project resulted in several accomplishments. First, there was extensive public involvement process that ensured that the community was behind the changes to the Town Plan and the Zoning Regulations. Next, the built-out analysis was effective since it demonstrated that the former zoning did not match the community vision, that changes needed to be made in order to protect the Town's natural resources and rural character. This led to the creation of three overlay districts: Rural Lands Overlay District, Agricultural Overlay District and the Wildlife Connector Overlay District with an emphasis on protecting natural resources and rural character. It also resulted in a reduction in density for the most rural sections of Hartford. Land previously zoned RL-5 (one lot per five acres) was changed to RL-10 (one lot per ten acres) or Forest Conservation (one lot per 28 acres).
The partners that have worked with the Town Plan update and establishment of Overlay Districts include the following:
Town Plan Steering Committee who worked on the Town Plan update for several years.
The Rural Lands Subcommittee, comprised of three Conservation Commission and two Town staff who developed the rural land use recommendations including the overlay districts.
The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission who provided natural resource mapping for the Town.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department who provided the Town with wildlife suitability maps for the Town and surrounding region.
The Upper Valley Land Trust who participated in community meetings on rural land use recommendations.
The Town Plan update including the rural land use recommendations and development of the Overlay Districts was successful in part due to the commitment of the three Conservation Commission members who actively participated in the Town Plan Steering Committee and the Rural Lands Subcommittee as well as the extensive public process throughout the Town Plan update. The three Conservation Commission members have a great deal of integrity and earned the respect of the Town Plan Steering Committee, Planning Commission, Selectboard and the community. Their recommendations were based on their strong belief in protecting the Town's natural resources and rural character and concern about the impact of development on the unfragmented forested areas of Hartford. Furthermore, the lengthy planning process allowed for numerous opportunities for public input on the proposed recommendations. Regular updates were sent out to Hartford residents who participated in community meetings on the Town Plan update. In addition, meeting flyers were distributed around the community and notices published in the local newspaper. Another important ingredient to the success of the project was the extensive public process, the fact that the Town Plan Steering Committee took time to get it right and not hurry the process.
One of the biggest challenges to the project was the amount of time it took to update the Town Plan and implement the Plan with zoning amendments. The rural land use recommendations were major changes and Town staff and the Town Plan Steering Committee wanted to make sure that there was community support for the recommendations. The process was to develop recommendations and then present them to the public before moving on to developing other recommendations. The process resulted in extensive public input. Although this was an effective approach, it took time. >From the time work began on the rural land use recommendations to approval of the Town Plan, it took two years. To implement the Town Plan recommendations by adopting amendments to the Zoning Regulations, it took another year.
Another challenge was concern that the new regulations might lead to opposition by residents who didn't want to see their property rights reduced. Although there were some opponents to the new regulations, there was widespread support by the community including many of the large property owners most impacted by the changes.