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The Orton Family Foundation was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger, both residents of Weston, Vermont, a small town of 600 in the southern Green Mountains. Orton and his three sons—Cabot, Gardner and Eliot—are proprietors of The Vermont Country Store, a national mail order/web business with stores in Weston and Rockingham, Vermont. The business was founded in 1946 by Lyman’s father and mother, Vrest and Ellen.
Lyman and Noel had each been closely involved in local planning efforts, including serving on the Weston Planning Commission. In the 1980s, Vermont experienced a building boom fueled in part by a rapid rise in second-homeownership. Many communities around the state, including Weston, found themselves unprepared and lacking the information and tools needed to protect their character while continuing to grow and change in positive directions. Lyman remembers struggling with a proposal in Weston to build a wildlife theme park on the side of a local mountain, which the Planning Commission discovered was permitted under current zoning bylaws, and which the Commission was powerless to prevent. With an entrepreneurial spirit and funding derived from the profits of the Vermont Country Store, Lyman and Noel established the Orton Family Foundation—an organization that would develop tools and resources to help communities like Weston decide how they wanted to grow and implement policies to ensure that they worked toward a shared community vision.
Under the leadership of Noel Fritzinger, the Foundation’s first President, the Foundation began to explore the development of tools and resources to help citizens make better, more informed land use decisions. Over the ensuing eight years, the Foundation invested in the development of CommunityViz®, its flagship GIS-based 3D visualization and decision-support tool. In communities across the US, CommunityViz came to represent the Foundation’s vision for how innovative technology could help elevate and inform the planning process while assisting communities in imagining new possibilities for the future. Also during this period, the Foundation funded and helped launch the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, a resource for smart growth planning that quickly became one of the state’s leading advocacy groups and a national model.
In 1998, William S. Shouldice IV succeeded Noel as President and helped build a series of new program initiatives. Recognizing a need for civic engagement methods and tools alongside planning technologies like CommunityViz, the Foundation created Community Video, a program that engages people in the collaborative creation and premier of a video about their communities’ values and vision for the future. The Foundation’s interest in place-based education led to a youth version of the program and an accompanying curriculum for classroom use. The Foundation also established a partnership with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in 1999 to develop Community Mapping, a nationally recognized program using GIS mapping and other technologies to foster deeper connections between students and their surroundings. In a further effort to explore place-based education, the Foundation published Hands On the Land (Jan Albers, MIT Press, 2000), an award-winning history of land use in Vermont that became a valuable teaching tool.
In the fall of 2004, William A. Shutkin was named President when Bill Shouldice shifted gears to become President of the Vermont Country Store. Bill Shutkin led the Foundation through a significant reorganization marked by a new emphasis on supporting communities engaged in actual land use planning projects. The Foundation transferred the sales, support and development functions of CommunityViz to Placeways LLC, an independent company owned and operated by former Foundation employees. The Foundation continues to own and support CommunityViz as well as apply it in the Foundation’s projects. Similarly, in 2005, the Community Mapping and Youth Community Video programs were repositioned within the Institute for Technology Development and The Rural School and Community Trust, respectively, which could better develop and sustain the programs at a national scale.
The Foundation’s new strategy included separate initiatives for Planning Tools, Planning Action and Planning Vision. The Foundation brought in the Denver-based, non-profit PlaceMatters to construct the Planning Tools program, which provided a national technology resource center to accelerate civic innovation in planning. The Foundation’s Planning Action work consisted of on-the-ground projects in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain West that utilized a wide range of tools and processes for improving planning and civic engagement. The Planning Vision program focused on communicating lessons from the Action and Tools arms. The Foundation began its semi-annual e-journal, Scenarios, and expanded PlaceMatters’s previous national tools conferences into a new convening, PLACEMATTERS06.
Bill Roper, who has worked with the Foundation since 1998, was appointed the fourth President and CEO in November 2006. Under his leadership, the Foundation is continuing to phase out its role in providing tools while increasing its focus on exploring the application of tools and processes in communities on the ground and on communicating the lessons learned from those communities. The Foundation now places a particular emphasis on work that helps communities identify and protect their “heart and soul,” and builds, through shared stories, a culture around the importance of community character in land use planning.
The Planning Tools program, including the Planning CoLaboratory and Tools Database, has now transitioned back into a distinct entity: PlaceMatters, a new non-profit organization that will focus on providing innovative tools and services for land use planning. As with Placeways LLC, the Foundation will work closely with PlaceMatters on projects, convenings and other program initiatives. Included among those is the annual conference, now called COMMUNITYMATTERS®.