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Hinesburg Has Designs on Its "Downtown"

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Published January 11, 2006 at 4:12 a.m.

HINESBURG -- Town planners expected maybe 20 or 30 folks would show up for last week's public forum to discuss a proposed village plan. They got more than 140 people, who lined the walls and spilled into the hallway the town hall. One local resident who couldn't get a seat grumbled, "They offer food and everybody shows up."

But it wasn't the free brownies and cheesecake that attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the two-hour public forum. At issue was the very identity of Hinesburg in the coming decade. To wit: Will this town that is less than half an hour south of Burlington follow the lead of Williston and South Burlington, and build car-dependent strip malls and sprawling subdivisions? Or will it look more like Bristol and Vergennes, with a compact village center, pedestrian-friendly streets, a village green and unique historic appeal?

Hinesburg is only the latest Vermont town to begin planning for growth into the 21st century. Overwhelmingly, the residents at last week's forum said that as their town grows, they want it to be more than just a bedroom community for Burlington or a strip for drivers passing through on Route 116. The question now is how to realize their vision.

That process has already begun. As Hinesburg Town Planner Alex Weinhagen explained, in June the Hinesburg Selectboard adopted a new town plan, or "vision document," that lays out in broad strokes what the town should look like in the next decade. On November 4, the Planning Commission held a half-day "design charrette" where a few dozen experts in planning, architecture, engineering, water quality and resource management brainstormed ideas about the kinds of development best suited for this small, rural community.

Those experts included Robert White, of ORW Landscape Architects and Planners of Norwich, who was hired to help Hinesburg through the process. The town faces a number of challenges that are endemic to many other small Vermont communities, White explained at the public meeting. Public school enrollment is decreasing. The town's wastewater treatment facility is at or nearing capacity. There is no public transportation to speak of. Much of Hinesburg's open space is swamp or wetlands and therefore off-limits to new construction. And the north edge of the village is already showing signs of, as White called it, "strip-mallitis."

The purpose of this meeting was to summarize the results of the design charrette and to seek feedback from the public, with particular emphasis on how they think the village center should grow. "This is a tool for you," White told the crowd. "Not for us. You."

Weinhagen echoed that sentiment. "As most of you know, the municipality of Hinesburg does not control development. Landowners control development," he explained. "What the town controls -- what you control as a community -- are the rules of the game."

Among the desiderata that emerged: a more walkable downtown, a broader range of housing options, more mixed-use development, on-street parking and tree-lined neighborhoods. Several residents expressed the need to slow traffic on Route 116, both to make the town safer to cyclists and pedestrians and to create a more inviting place for visitors to stop and shop.

"For many of us who live and work here every day, it feels like a dangerous place," said George Dameron. He chairs Hinesburg's Village Steering Committee, an advisory group created in June to improve quality of life in the town center. A new village plan should emphasize walkability, safety and connectivity, Dameron added, and maintain the town's historic structures.

Other residents asked about the likelihood of the state constructing a "western bypass" to reduce vehicular traffic through the village. White's assessment was blunt: "Unless you're willing to fork over a couple of million of your own money, it's not going to happen."

The Hinesburg Planning Commission expects to have a final report in hand this spring.