By Mal Boright
It has been said that before walking the walk one must talk the talk.
In St. George last week, the talking about future development and growth around the 84-acre town center got off to a spirited start. And apparently, according to one Development Review Board member, there will be much more talking.
Some 30 residents weighed in on the future of the town center at the May 5 meeting at the town office, and, according to Scott Baker of the DRB, the session was a good start to a series of community discussions that could go on for some time.
‘I think it was productive,” Baker said of the meeting. “As to what happens next? Residents need to make some fundamental decisions about growth. Do we want business, buildings or have the land remain open.”
Baker believes growth is inevitable for the little town of 715 people and that, to him, raises the ultimate question.
“Since growth is inevitable,” he said. “The question then becomes can we steer development in a way to accommodate the growth.”
Baker warned that if St. George does not provide development for the growth, then the development will occur outside the town.
‘Our town is at the crossroads,” he said.
Baker said the next steps in the discussion process will be more scheduled meetings with residents and possible surveys in an effort to get opinions on the table.
The opinions were flowing at the May 5 meeting which DRB Chair Pam Moreau opened by stating,” We know development is going to come to St. George. We want to take a pro-active position, certainly in terms of figuring out how all uses will fit together.”
She called the town center a vital part of the municipal plan.
Diane Gayer of the Vermont Design Institute, a non-profit organization that works with towns on design projects, called for an initial “visionary process that includes social discussions, not just planning discussions.”
Gayer recalled similar projects with other towns such as Morrisville, Middlesex and Shoreham. She praises St. George for having a plan from 1974, calling it a great foundation.
Gayer was also optimistic that St. George could find municipal planning grant money in the $8,000 to $10,000 range to help with the process.
Zoning Administrator Dick Ward was less sanguine about attracting grants, noting, “Our problem is that we are in Chittenden County. We have to compete with South Burlington, Winooski and Burlington. (Grant) Reviewers do not see growth problems in St. George.”
Gayer agreed that such competition is tough, but had other suggestions for applications including to the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Mindful that many in the room were very aware of past failures to achieve consensus on the development question, Gayer recommended a process to determine “what everybody wants to see and then establish some operating guidelines with some principles.”
One question to Gayer concerned new business in a town and whether these new firms bring “economic value to the community?”
“My understanding is that the tax benefits are pretty iffy,” Gayer responded.
“I agree with the spirit of the committee to become pro-active,” said Tom Buck. “Much of what has happened was without community participation and that has been aggravating to me. Twice before, a lack of consensus has been the downfall of a visionary plan. We need to get beyond that blockage.”
“You need a density of folks to implement a village development,” Gayer pointed out.
“You need to get more people involved and out of that additional leadership will develop.”
Those at the meeting were more than happy to add their two cents.
Steve Faust said, “The question should be what is the best use. I don’t want to say no to business and I don’t want to say yes to business.”
Norm Burnett, owner of Rocky Ridge Golf Course, said he would love to see more business “helping me out,” in St. George.
Whether that will be a convenience store-gasoline station as proposed by developers Charles and Joseph Handy on land they own at the town center was not addressed, even though the proposal was the proverbial elephant in the room.
The Handys’ proposal for a 4,340-square foot convenience store with six gasoline pump islands is before the DRB.
“Some very good questions were raised tonight,” said meeting moderator Marie Mastro in concluding the session. “St. George is next to the interstate and next door to the Williston we all know and love. I would love to come in here and shut it down so no one else comes in. That is not about to happen.”