Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Town planner retires after 19 years in town

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
April 1, 2006

19 years in town
Leslloyd F. Alleyne Jr. / Journal Inquirer
Vernon Town Planner Thomas Joyce retired after nearly 20 years of service.

VERNON - Building and site plans were rolled up and scattered throughout Town Planner Thomas J. Joyce's office last week, a sort of schematic chronicle of his time in the town's Planning Department.

Because the town has processed most of those plans, Joyce said, he isn't sure if they will be of use to any other staff member in the office. Still, Joyce said, he held onto the plans through the years just in case he needed to refer to them.

At this point, that is unlikely.

Joyce, 63, retired Friday after spending nearly 19 years in the town's planning office, first as economic development director, then as town planner.

For years, any developer or entrepreneur seeking to build a home or business in town probably would have spent a few moments talking about the plan with Joyce.

Over the years, Joyce developed an extensive knowledge of local development history and regulations.

But recently, Joyce said, he began thinking about doing other things.

The case for retirement

His father died at age 62, Joyce said, and he began to consider retirement as the workload in the town planner's office became more demanding amid several controversial development applications.

Joyce came to Vernon in August 1987 after heading redevelopment efforts in the Willimantic section of Windham for three years.

Earlier in his career, Joyce served as executive director of a nonprofit development organization in Salem, Mass. He also spent seven years as a full-time sociology professor at the University of Hartford.

When he came to Vernon, Joyce said, he saw a lot of room for growth in town.

"I saw a great deal of potential in Vernon, which gradually it has been fulfilling," he said.

After serving as economic development director for nearly 14 years, Joyce became interim town planner in the summer of 2001 following the resignation of George Russell. In October 2001, the Town Council unanimously appointed him to the job on a permanent basis.

Shortly after his appointment, the development scene in Vernon heated up dramatically.

By 2003, the town found itself in the middle of two controversial applications involving the proposed development of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a large Home Depot store near exit 67 from Interstate 84.

Keeping it focused

The Inland Wetlands Commission began a series of lengthy public hearings on the proposals, which drew large crowds of residents to testify on the emotionally charged issues.

Joyce said it was a stressful time to be town planner, especially when he had to tell residents that their public testimony could relate only to wetlands issues - not to traffic or the effect of the proposed developments on the local economy. To stray into irrelevant issues could put the commission's ultimate decision in legal jeopardy, Joyce explained.

This put him in potential conflict with residents who came to the meetings with a litany of concerns.

"What you need is for the testimony to be focused," Joyce said. "Not everybody talking about a few things they don't like, but a few people talking about what the commission is going to base its decision on."

Joyce said public interest in local land-use planning has increased in recent years, as land well suited for development has grown scarcer. As proposed developments become more controversial, the potential for costly court appeals increases, Joyce said.

Although the wetland commission rejected Home Depot's proposal in August 2003, the matter is still pending in Superior Court.

"As you get more potential appeals, the application has to be processed more carefully," Joyce said. "We're going into land now that people never expected would be developed, and they're very surprised."

But Joyce said there have also been bright moments during his tenure in the planner's office.

Re-investment hailed

Joyce said a number of property and business owners have begun re-investing in their buildings in recent years. For example, the "Mecca Building" at 33 W. Main St. was vacant for many years before its owner renovated it last year. The building now houses an adult education center.

"Those are big improvements, but they're not as dramatic to people as brand new things," Joyce said.

Speaking of Joyce's contributions to the town, Economic Development Director Neil S. Pade said it would be difficult for the planning office to lose the institutional memory built up by the retiring planner during his nearly 19 years in the office.

Pade, who came to town in August 2004 and is one of the candidates to replace Joyce, said he will also miss Joyce's dry sense of humor.

Joyce said the town needs to find a way to put planning, engineering, and building inspection under the same roof.

Now, a person who comes in to propose a project has to get an application from the planning office in Town Hall, consult with the town engineer's office down the hall, then walk across West Main Street to meet with the town's building officials.

Joyce said he hopes the potential renovation of the town's office building at 55 W. Main St. can provide "one-stop shopping" and streamline planning operations.

As for his future, Joyce said, he will spend some time resting next month before looking for the opportunity to go back to part-time college teaching.

Joyce is a native of Boston but said he intends to remain in Vernon.

"It's a convenient location," he said.

"You can get on the interstate and get to places easily. People are friendly."

©Journal Inquirer 2006