What's in Norwich's Rt. 5 Zoning Proposal?
The rough draft sets goals.
The Norwich listserve lit up last week over publication (and lack of publication) of the rough draft of the Route 5 South/River Road Rezoning Proposal. Planning commission members felt the draft wasn't ready for prime time. Open government advocates argued that "ready or not," the release of the draft was legally required. The draft was eventually posted on the town website.
The Observer read the 30-page draft. He agrees that the report should have been published— it is a public document. At the same time he understands why the board was reluctant to have the rough draft made public. The rough draft wasn't ready for public discussion— as subsequent posts on the listserv have proven. As a stand-alone document, the rough draft lacks the context that comes with a public presentation. Here's a summary of what's in the draft and what's missing, and why citizens should plan to attend the planning board's presentation of the rezoning proposal.
The rough draft does a fine job explaining the goals behind the zoning change. These are:
*Maintain rural character of the town.
*Increase control over commercial development.
*Take steps to control increasing taxes.
*Take advantage of best known options for increase affordable housing in Norwich and better meet the needs of workers, young families, seniors, and children of residents.
Here's what's missing.
*Page 2— the start time of the meeting is wrong and the date of the presentation missing. (The meeting is scheduled for January 24 at 7:00 P.M. in Tracy Hall's multi-purpose room.)
*The economic argument in favor of rezoning is vague. Four pages of the proposal explain the requirements and enticements that, in theory, will entice developers to build affordable housing on the rezoned land. That is a good start. However, there isn't any supporting evidence that those incentives are generous enough to encourage a developer to start a project where 25 percent of new units must be affordable houses selling for $180,000. A 35-acre parcel in the area up for rezoning is assessed for tax purposes at $189,800. It recently went up for sale with an asking price of $1.5 million. Can the planning board's affordable housing incentives overcome an upfront land cost like that? The rough draft doesn't say.
*Page 23, titled "What's the Tax Impact of the Proposal?" contains this conclusion — "If proposal is adopted and new development occurs more students in school reduces per pupil cost and lowers tax burden." The same page includes this placeholder: "Phil-Awaiting per student revenue from Dresden district." The obvious question— how did the report's authors conclude that more students will reduce the tax burden before crunching the Dresden numbers?
*Page 23 also states that "school taxes stay high and potentially increase" if the proposal is rejected. There are no numbers in the draft to answer two key questions:
*How many school-age children are estimated to move into the affordable units and the market-rate units?
*How many new students must Norwich enroll before there is an impact on taxes?
This draft has taken a lot of undeserved heat on the listserve. It is, to be fair, a rough draft that was not intended for public scrutiny at the draft stage. Norwich residents should reserve judgement on the rezoning plan until the final draft is released and the board holds a public meeting on January 24.