Charrette on the horizon

Last modified: 5/14/2014 6:52:01 PM
NEW IPSWICH — At a meeting Tuesday, Select Board members voted to move forward with an intensive community design session that will take place in September and could help make some major decisions for the town.

New Ipswich recently applied for and was accepted to be part of a community-involved planning process with a nonprofit known as Plan NH. On Sept. 19 and 20, town boards, business owners and community members will gather in a round-table discussion to outline a plan surrounding a certain town area or idea, and receive feedback from professional planners.

What is a charrette?

Plan NH charrettes take place over a two-day period. “Charrette” is a French word that describes a concentrated time of work. A Community Design Charrette is meant to bring together volunteers from Plan NH with community boards, citizens and business owners in a town to develop ideas for crafting certain areas in town.

Charrettes can be used to form a plan for a specific area in town, or to create a town center or special neighborhood. A community can apply to Plan NH, and if selected, Plan NH teams visit the targeted area and meet with those interested in contributing their ideas about what they would like to see in that part of town. Based on the input from the community, design and other recommendations are developed and presented to the community on the second day of the charrette.

The town will pay $5,000 for the process. New Ipswich Town Administrator Roberta Fraser said the town hopes to offset the cost of the charrette with business donations.

Plan NH has conducted charrettes in more than 50 New Hampshire towns, including one that was held in Rindge in 2011. However, voters in Rindge later knocked down plans that were developed during that town’s charrette process.

What is the focus?

There are several areas in town for which a charrette could provide clarity, Fraser said during Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. Although the board had yet to discuss what shape the charrette could take, the issue that prompted the town to pursue the application to be considered for a charrette process was the area in town near Furnace Brook, particularly the area next to the New Ipswich Market that is the location of the defunct Central Elementary School. The school building and land are owned by the Mascenic School District and are currently on the market, but there has been discussion in town of what to do with the space if the building doesn’t sell. Among the suggestions have been using the area as green space or a community park. The charrette could help to plan what that space could look like, said Fraser.

There are other possibilities as well, she added, including designating a space and plan for a emergency management complex in town to house the town’s police, fire and emergency management. Last year, the town voted down funds to pay for a feasibility study for such a complex, but it remains among the town’s needs, said Fraser. A third option for the charrette would be to consider the fate of the former police station and SAU office, known as Building No. 2, which was abandoned several years ago due to an infestation of black mold. The town has turned down two articles in the last two years seeking to demolish the building.

“We’re not really clear what the focus would be yet,” said Fraser.

Potential setbacks

Select Board members Woody Meiszner and Becky Doyle wondered about the best way to attract community members to participate.

Doyle said she had mixed feelings about a charrette process, but did ultimately see it as an idea generator, and that nothing developed during that process was cut into stone. She added that there are a lot of people in town that are vocal about the changes they would like to see in town, and felt this could be an avenue for speaking up.

Meiszner also agreed that the biggest challenge would be encouraging participation.

“It’s one thing to bark about it at Nennie’s [5 Star Cafe],” Meiszner said of those in town who are outspoken, “It’s another to show up at meetings to hash it out. Look at how many people show up at deliberative session.”

Both Doyle and Meiszner agreed that going into the charrette with a narrow view of focusing on two or three issues would make it easier to get people involved in the process.

Select Board Chair George Lawrence also noted that the recent issues that the town of Rindge has had with designs developed from its own charrette process might cast a shadow on New Ipswich’s process.

Fraser noted the objections Rindge residents had voiced in that case had little to do with the actual charrette process itself, and were unique to Rindge.

“I just hope Rindge doesn’t hurt us,” commented Lawrence.

The Rindge Charrette

Like New Ipswich, in 2011 Rindge applied for and was accepted by Plan NH to participate in a charrette process. In the case of Rindge, participants were focused on the developing certain parts of town, including the West Rindge Village, the town center and the Route 202 and Route 119 intersection. The charrette led to several proposed zoning changes, including reducing lot sizes in the village and college districts, and proposing a crossroads overlay district at the Route 202/119 intersection that would permit uses such as higher density housing, retail and other businesses.

However, as the town began to move forward to implement those changes, it met resistance from a community group that became known as “Save Our Town,” made up of residents who were concerned about accepting U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development federal grants, and compromising the rural nature of the town. The group gained traction, and in March, the town voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposed overlay district, to recommend the removal of the charrette from the town’s Master Plan, as well as to require the town to gain approval from the legislating body — i.e. the voters — before accepting any federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In April, the Rindge Planning Board officially voted to remove the charrette from its Master Plan.

Despite the ultimate rejection of some of the results of the plan, Rindge Select Board Chair Roberta Oeser said in an interview Wednesday that the charrette system is still a valuable one. The key is to have enough community members represented that everyone is happy with the outcome, she said.

“The biggest thing is get the word out to the people. New Ipswich is perhaps in an enviable position, because the Rindge charrette got so much publicity, maybe a broader spectrum of the town will take part,” said Oeser. “We thought we had really good turnout and input. There were a lot of people that were involved in that some years ago, but now a lot of people say that’s not what we want. There’s nothing wrong with the charrette process. [The Rindge charrette] was done with the input of the people that attended. If you get different people attending, it’s going to come out in a different way. But there’s nothing wrong with the process itself.”


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