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What's On Norwich's Mind? Taxes and Housing, Sure... But Also Speeding, Young Families, and Listserv Rudeness

Submitted 2 months ago
Created by
Rob Gurwitt

Ask an open-ended question and you get open-ended answers. Lots of them. 

The first question in the big town-wide survey circulated by the Norwich Selectboard a few months ago was this: What do you think are the 3-5 most pressing issues facing the Town of Norwich? It was placed there by the town planning commission, which wanted to get a sense of what's on Norwich residents' minds.

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Boy, has it ever. The question drew responses from 464 people, who listed 1,600 different opinions and concerns.

Now, after sorting and coding and crunching by Planning Commission Chair Jaci Allen, members Susan Brink and Jeff Lubell, and Planning Administrator Rod Francis, we have an idea of what Norwichites care about.

Top of the list? Property taxes. Survey respondents think they're too high. They got mentioned 303 times overall, though several dozen people were so adamant that they mentioned them more than once. They were balanced out by the 50 respondents who wanted lower taxes but also to spend money on new public facilities such as town sewers, widened sidewalks, or a replacement for the Norwich pool.

Next was affordable housing, an issue that's been getting a lot of attention in town, with 222 mentions. Then a broad catchall of "governance" issues, which included everything from rigorous budget management to incivility to concern about public distrust of officials.

Overall, here are the top 10 broad concerns (you can find a summary of the full results here):

While a lot of them fall into clearly recognizable buckets, the individual responses also serve as a sort of road map to more particular preoccupations. Along with taxes and housing, says Jaci Allen, "road maintenance in the face of more flooding, support for maintaining quality education while getting a handle on costs, lack of diversity, maintaining the rural character, and broadening the tax base" are all significant priorities. Forty-three people, for instance, mentioned greater diversity (both economic and racial) as a desire.

There were other concerns, as well. Speeding on the town's roads, worries that Norwich is growing too "suburban," a wish for more young families to bolster the school population (which is declining), even the occasional outburst of contentiousness on the Norwich Community Discussion List, all drew attention.

To get an overview of what residents are thinking about -- tough when you're faced with 1,600 different thoughts -- Susan Brink fed the responses into software that creates a "word cloud" -- a visual way of gauging how often a particular word appears. The results are below (the bigger and bolder the word, the more often it appeared):

A "word cloud" of Question 1 responses

So what happens now? The Planning Commission has sent its summary of the results to Town Manager Herb Durfee and to the Selectboard. For its own part, says Jaci Allen, the commission will "apply the feedback to different chapters of the town plan and would like to share it with other committees, such as the Affordable Housing Committee, School Board, Norwich Business Council, and Conservation/Trails Committee."

In other words, expect the results to keep cropping up as Norwich discusses its way forward over the next few years.

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