Our opinion: Manchester's future

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Historically, Manchester adapts to change slowly and cautiously. Perhaps that's why such a fuss was made when Manchester Designer Outlets started building in town back in the 1980s, and why it took so long to design and build the roundabout at Main and Depot streets, at what used to be known as "Dysfunction Junction."

Now, we can't imagine Manchester without either. Those shops continue to bring visitors to Manchester. And that roundabout has become a natural location for civic celebrations and gatherings as well as a marked improvement over the intersection it replaced.

We bring this up because Manchester is on the verge of another potential paradigm shift — a revised zoning ordinance and map that could position this town and its economy well for the coming century. The Planning Commission will meet to discuss one last round of potential changes on Feb. 5. After that, it will be sent to the Select Board, which will then hold a hearing and decide whether to enact the new ordinance.

There's little glamour in the business of deciding what a zoning map should look like, but there's plenty of hard work involved, and no shortage of second-guessing. To that end, the town owes its gratitude to its volunteer planning commission, and to planning and zoning administrator Janet Hurley, for their efforts in crafting a thoughtful plan that attempts to address a number of major challenges while maintaining Manchester's sense of place. It's not easy.

We've heard and seen criticisms of the plan, and we understand the reasons for some of the concerns. But we know one thing for certain: Doing nothing will fix nothing.

There is no doubt that Manchester needs workforce housing — the sort that young adults and working families can afford. It's an obstacle to economic growth and it has to change if Manchester is to sustain the growth of its current employers or welcome new businesses, their employees and their employees' families. Consider this: our teachers and police officers live outside of town, because they can't afford to live here.

Those young adults and families will come because they've heard about the quality of life that's available here — great schools, open spaces, welcoming neighbors, and a sense of community you won't find everywhere else. It stands to reason that if they come seeking those things, they'll give them back, too. Maybe they'll spark a nightlife scene within walking distance of the town center. Maybe they'll open shops that are more geared to residential needs.

Is that worth an extra five feet in maximum building height in the town center? We think so.

At the same time, Manchester has a vested interest in keeping sprawl from creeping over our farm fields and open spaces. There's something to be said for building houses and promoting development where we have already built infrastructure, rather than paving open fields and putting up McMansions in the name of progress.

The positive trade-off for this may not be apparent in the short-term. In the long term, the aesthetics and unspoiled beauty we take for granted will only become more valuable in an increasingly cramped and overdeveloped world. And keep this in mind: The days of relying upon fossil fuel to get from the center of town to the house in the country are coming to an end. We must be more careful in how we treat our planet and use these finite resources, and housing concentrated around a village center is far more energy efficient than suburban sprawl that takes the place of pasture, orchards and forests.

For the better part of two centuries, Manchester has relied upon tourism as an economic engine. Trains, then cars, brought golfers, skiers, anglers and lovers of the outdoors to our perch in the mountains. Artists and writers have found inspiration here. People who are famous or notable in their fields have been drawn to the simplicity of life here, glad to live where a fuss isn't made every time they go to the store. And many have stayed, and made life better here as a result.

Giving those visitors reasons to keep coming back, and giving the children of full-time residents reasons to stick around, are both important.

There are no guarantees in life. But there are moments in life where we can't wait for the sure thing; moments where we make the best decision we can with the information we have and move forward.

We think the revised zoning ordinance and map presents such an opportunity.

If you're a Manchester resident or property owner and you haven't seen the zoning proposal, now's the time to get educated and make your voice heard. It's on display at town hall, and available online as well.

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