Norwich SB Wants to Take the Public Pulse -- Regularly

Conversation starter?

It may be a while before the results of this year’s big town survey are fully logged, digested, analyzed, and debated. You can be sure of one thing, though. The last town survey was in 2014, and before that in 2005; expect the next one much sooner than 2022—perhaps even before the end of this year. 

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The Selectboard wants to get a regular sense of where townspeople stand on a host of issues — possibly as often once a month. So it’s planning to start using short, focused surveys to help guide its work. As Selectboard member Linda Cook says, “Not everyone has time to fill out a long survey and get their comments in.”

“I always think it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening,” says Selectboard Chair John Pepper, who’s been pushing the idea. “Before committing resources and lots of time to an initiative that may not have any town support, you can actually take the temperature on things and focus on whether something’s worth doing.” 

The 2018 survey was long. Its 34 questions covered everything from whether residents rent or own their homes, to whether they want the town’s population to grow, to how townspeople feel about commercial growth, affordable housing, wastewater treatment, public trails, and various options for infrastructure spending. 

In a sense, the survey offered a map to Norwich’s various public minefields. Affordable housing gets most of the attention both in ink and on the listserv, but dig into the survey and you’ll find questions about burying overhead wires; putting up a sound barrier along I-91; paving gravel roads; auto traffic through town; and tying into Hartford or Hanover’s municipal sewer system… or building Norwich’s own. The very first question, placed on the survey by the Planning Commission, was open-ended, asking residents to chime in on what they consider the most pressing issues facing the town. A sub-group of the commission will meet next week to organize and code the roughly 2000 answers respondents supplied, and will no doubt find plenty of hot-button issues among them.

These are not merely hypothetical public policy questions. Take burying overhead wires. “Some people will be incensed we’re even talking about it,” says Pepper. “Yet enough people talked about it that it’s worth a look.” Same, of course, with whether Norwich needs to move beyond standalone septic and perhaps tie into a wastewater system across the river or down Route 5. The issue’s been kicked around for years, but now the septic system at the Marion Cross School is failing. The school is trying to fix it, but Pepper argues that the town needs to look at the larger question sooner rather than later. “This forces the conversation, and it’s something we’ll need to get sentiment on soon,” Pepper says. “It’s a conversation we need to have.”

There’s even a meta-issue that may find itself the subject of a poll. The Selectboard this year opted to put the survey online, with print copies available at Tracy Hall, rather than mailing the survey to all residents, as happened in 2005. Though the survey’s 444 respondents put it well past the number needed to be statistically significant, they fall far short of the roughly 900 respondents to the 2005 survey. “There’s a broad range of people in Norwich who do not have computers. So we’re not reaching those people. And that’s where the 2005 survey got larger participation, because everybody got to see it,” says Linda Cook.

In truth, no one knows how many people lack access to wifi or cell service. Some people put that down as one of the top issues facing Norwich — “But we won't know until next week whether it was five people or 150 people,” says Susan Brink, a planning commission member. Selectboard member Mary Layton is hoping to survey residents on the question—but, of course, will need to make the questions available on paper. She’s looking for volunteers to help her enter the data electronically once that survey is done.

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