The Village of Essex Junction is an incorporated municipality within the Town of Essex. The governments of the two municipalities, the Town and the Village, have been consolidating services and departments since 2013, and are now exploring the concept of a complete merger.
By George Tyler
Board of Trustees Vice President
Answer: No … and yes.
Community development is guided by a complex planning and regulatory process. Essex Junction and Essex Town are geographically subdivided into zones in which only certain types of buildings and infrastructure are allowed. The Essex Junction Village Center zone and the Essex Town Center zone are both considered ‘growth centers’ in which high population density and commercial development are actively pursued by our community development offices as part of their strategic, economic development goals.
The design and structural codes in these two ‘growth center’ zones encourage multistory commercial and mixed-use commercial/residential buildings. Infrastructure growth in both centers has sparked controversy throughout the community, which was reflected in many of the comments we heard in the recent online survey about governance and merger sponsored by the Essex Junction Trustees and Essex Town Selectboard.
The logic and long range vision for our growth centers is spelled out in the Town’s and Village’s municipal plans, which are legally binding master documents required by the state and the regional planning commission. Each municipal plan integrates its community’s development goals with its existing zoning and building codes. Communities must abide by their municipal plans and can’t arbitrarily deviate from them in response to circumstance or political whim. Communities can revise and update their plans, but the process is slow, incremental, and heavily regulated. Essex Town can’t suddenly change the zoning for an entire residential neighborhood to make way for a manufacturing plant. Essex Junction can’t suddenly forbid multistory buildings in the Village center.
Essex Town’s municipal plan doesn’t include Essex Junction, even though the Village is considered part of the Town for taxing purposes. Essex Junction’s plan stops at the Village borders. Merging the Town and Village governments wouldn’t change their municipal plans, but it would merge them into a single document. The ‘hole’ in the Essex Town plan that should contain the Village would be filled, but the development goals and regulations within each plan would remain the same upon merger.
If merger happens, the long-term evolution of the newly unified Town-Village municipal plan would be under the control of a single planning commission, development office, and elected board. Changes and updates would reflect the coordinated strategic vision of the entire community. We’d finally be able to start planning together as a unified community.
For example, with 11,000 people in about four square miles, Essex Junction, independent of Essex Town, is nearly as densely populated per square mile as cities like Burlington, Rutland, and Winooski. Do we want this trend to continue and have the Village become the ‘city’ section of the town? Do we want to shift some of the growth to the Essex Town Center? Or do we want to slow the growth of the Town Center to retain its suburban character? As the state’s second largest and fastest growing community, these are the kinds of conversations we should be having and could be having under a unified government.
The results of the first resident survey–and much more–are posted on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.